It has been more than a year since Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik bought Channelside Bay Plaza, but plans for the waterfront entertainment center’s future remain unclear.
Bay Plaza hasn’t changed much since Vinik’s company, CBP Development LLC, took over. The center is still 70 percent vacant, and much of the time, so are the remaining restaurants and bars that are still in business there. The year old Hablo Taco, a Mexican restaurant known for its tequila cocktails, is the newest tenant.
Vinik’s big plans to redevelop downtown Tampa, including the 230,532-square-foot Bay Plaza, will take years to get started. Bay Plaza’s remaining tenants are cautiously optimistic that they’ll still be in business by the time that happens.
“Until Channelside becomes a sense of place again, most people are going to avoid it,” said Jim Kovacs, managing director of retail services with Colliers International in Tampa. “It’s not really a friendly destination this point. People don’t have a reason to go there.”
Channelside Bay Plaza is a key component in Vinik’s $2 billion plan to redevelop the 40-acre urban core of downtown Tampa with the support of Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ investment fund, Cascade Investment. But tenants and the management team Vinik’s company hired in 2014 to run the day-to-day operations at the center don’t know what’s coming next.
Adam Vosding was hired as Bay Plaza’s general manager in March, with the intention of bringing life back into the center. He works for Franklin Street, the company Vinik hired to manage the center’s operations.
“The goal is to make Channelside a cool and fun place to come back to, and to rebrand it after a few years of neglect from the previous owners,” Vosding said. “Since there are no finalized plans for redevelopment yet, we’re in a holding pattern.”
That means they’re not leasing out vacant space, like the shuttered movie theater or vacant restaurant spaces on the second floor.
“The remaining tenants have toughed it out and we try to plan events as often as we can. We’re all in this together,” he said.
CBP Development paid $7.1 million to buy Channelside from its previous owner, the Irish Bank Resolution Corp. in 2014. The IBRC took over the Irish bank that foreclosed on the property adjacent to Port Tampa Bay in 2010. Vinik’s company pledged to invest at least $10 million into renovations at Bay Plaza when the property was bought. Final plans will have to be approved the board of directors at Port Tampa Bay.
While there haven’t been any major noticeable upgrades to Bay Plaza since the change in ownership, Vosding said most of the work that’s been done has been behind the scenes. The building was painted. Lights and electrical wiring were replaced. They added new landscaping.
“It’s definitely been a challenge, and still is a challenge,” Vosding said about revamping Bay Plaza and its reputation.
Still, business has been steadily going up, thanks in part to attractions like firework displays on New Years Eve and Fourth of July and events like “Brews by the Bay.” But it was the Tampa Bay Lightning’s successful run in the National Hockey League playoffs that became a boon for the center. Bay Plaza hosted the official watch parties for away games last season, and continues to do so once a month this season.
Bay Plaza hosts its own farmers market once a month and renovated an empty restaurant into an event space. In December, it hosted several corporate parties, Vosding said.
“Is business where I want it to be? No. But is it okay? Yes,” said local restaurateur Guy Revelle, who with his business partner, Mark Gibson, opened Hablo Taco last year and run Splitsville bowling center in Bay Plaza. They opened Stump’s Supper Club and Howl at the Moon in Bay Plaza, two of the center’s original tenants, but closed them 2012.
“We don’t know everything that’s going to happen, but I think we fit nicely into what Vinik wants to do there,” he said. “I know there are some places that are doing better than others in Channelside right now, but it would be great to have bigger concepts, like a movie theater up and running, that would generate more traffic for us.”
For the first four months, Hablo Taco wasn’t open for lunch. But business picked up so the restaurant is open for lunch every day now, Revelle said.
Precinct Pizza in Channelside said that 2015 was the busiest year in its nine years of business there, said owner Rick Drury. He attributes that to the excitement of the NHL playoffs. And new apartments and condos in the Channel District have kept business steady.
“We love to see all of construction of new housing in the Channel District and cannot wait till USF’s Morsani College of Medicine opens up diagonally across the street,” Drury said. “Every new apartment building only brings more potential customers so we will take all the apartment construction projects we can handle in the area.”
He said he has “no idea” what Vinik’s plans are for the center, but said he doesn’t mind waiting as long as it is done right.
“It’s no secret that Channelside has had enough failed projects and people who did not have the best of intentions for its tenants so we are very optimistic about Mr. Vinik’s vision,” Drury said. “The tenants here believe in Mr. Vinik and that he will do the right thing for the tenants and for the district.”
Bay Plaza is just one piece of the puzzle. In the next three to four years, Vinik’s plans will start to come online. That include USF’s Morsani College of Medicine and USF Health Heart Institute, a 400-plus room hotel next to Amalie Arena, at least one office building, about 1,000 residences and 200,000 square feet of space for restaurants and stores. In addition, the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina will be revamped.
Port Tampa Bay also has plans in place to develop $1.7 billion worth of hotels, offices, apartments and a bigger cruise ship terminal in the next 15 years.
“Vinik doesn’t have pixie dust. We know all these changes are going to take time,” Revelle said. “We’re just excited to be a part of it.”
Remaining tenants in Channelside Bay Plaza:
Hooters, Habla Taco, David O’Keefe Pop Culture Icons, Cold Stone Creamery, Splitsville Luxury Lanes, Flambe restaurant, LIT Premium Cigar Lounge, Oishi, Magic Carpet Glide Tampa Bay Segway Tours, Surf Down Under, Precinct Pizza, The Kingdome, Tampa4U.com Realty, Wet Willie’s bar, White House Gear and American Classics, Thai Thani restaurant