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Monday, Sep 01, 2014

Editorial: Court ruling a good deal for Channelside


Port Tampa Bay’s efforts to revive the troubled Channelside retail complex were given a major boost this week when a bankruptcy judge dismissed several claims by a development group behind a failed bid to purchase the complex.

We hope the ruling Wednesday by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Sontchi emboldens the port to take ownership of the complex once and for all.

“We are eager to move forward in our efforts to bring about the full potential of Channelside,” the port’s attorney, Charles Klug, said after the ruling.

That’s the ultimate goal here: To get the moribund retail complex to reach its full potential. The legal battle being waged by the development group Liberty Channelside LLC is causing delays that could hinder the development of the entire Channelside area.

The port owns the land beneath the complex, but the buildings that comprise the shops and restaurants are owned by an Irish bank in foreclosure. That’s how the port’s offer to purchase the buildings for $5.75 million ended up in bankruptcy court.

Liberty’s $5.5 million bid to purchase the buildings and renovate the complex was rejected last year by the port’s board of directors, which has the final say on ownership. Liberty cried foul, saying its bid was unfairly rejected, in part because they are of Indian descent.

Sontchi dismissed Liberty’s claims for damages, but did leave the door ajar for the refiling of one of them. Considering the hard feelings displayed to date by Liberty, it would be no surprise should it pursue a refiling, despite the court’s strong finding for the port.

That would be a shame because the Channelside complex is key to the area’s development and the dual ownership model that resulted in the current legal morass should not be repeated.

It’s possible the court could decide to award ownership to the highest bidder at a public auction. If that day comes, the port should be prepared to make a winning bid.

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik, who has purchased land in the area, and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn are eager for the ownership question to be resolved. Having a single entity — the port — in control of the land and the complex would simplify the planning for future development of the complex and the surrounding area.

The Channelside retail complex has been snakebit since its opening in 2001. The poor design put most of the shops and restaurants behind a wall that also hides the water from view. Despite being bordered by the Florida Aquarium, a cruise port and the Forum where the Lightning play, the commercial establishments have largely failed. It’s mostly empty these days.

With condo towers nearby and more in the works, and development interest from the Lightning’s owner, the area is becoming a vibrant urban neighborhood, where a revamped Channelside could thrive.

The judge’s ruling this week puts the port much closer to gaining control of a key element to the renaissance of that part of downtown. The port is taking the right approach by vigorously defending its interests.

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