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New bidder emerges for Channelside complex

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2014 at 05:15 PM

TAMPA — A new bidder offering a letter of intent to pay $7.5 million to lease and operate Channelside Bay Plaza emerged Tuesday, but that does not necessarily mean the potential for rehabilitation of the beleaguered complex has moved forward significantly.

That’s because there will be no procedure for the sale of the complex until a federal bankruptcy judge resolves various legal issues

, the parties involved in Channelside proceedings said.

Nonetheless Benjamin Mallah Sr., President and Chief Executive Officer of the Largo property management company Equity Management Partners Inc., told Port Tampa Bay board members he submitted a letter of intent to take control of the facility to the receiver and bank that hold loan documents and the leasehold interest in the Plaza.

“I will move into the property and make it the destination we need,” Mallah said at the board’s meeting Tuesday. “Tampa does not need another restaurant or bar. It needs a family (operation) at Channelside.”

Mallah outlined repairs, upgrades and capital improvements his firm would initiate at the Plaza, from curing code violations and defaults to cleaning, painting and repair work.

A letter of interest addressed to the port authority board said Equity Management would secure an appropriate owner for the Plaza theater, market the Plaza to national and international brand outlet tenants and operate the Plaza as a first class retail, entertainment and restaurant center.

Mallah’s firm recently restored the Pelican Walk Plaza, a 40,000 square foot mixed use retail, entertainment and restaurant development in Clearwater Beach and the Bay Harbor Best Western Hotel on Rocky Point in Tampa.

The firm holds a $185 million real estate portfolio including Hogan’s Beach Restaurant & Tiki Bay on the Courtney Campbell Causeway. Mallah said Terry Bollea, who wrestled professionally as Hulk Hogan, was not involved as a potential investor in Channelside but could become a part of future transactions with his firm.

Mallah and his attorney, David B. Williams of Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen, made a three-minute presentation during the port authority’s board meeting’s public comments period.

Board members did not comment; Chairman Stephen Swindal alerted Mallah and Williams when they had 30 seconds remaining to speak.

“We were not on the agenda,” said Williams, who provided documents to the port’s legal counsel about 5 p.m. Monday. “We just wanted an opportunity to introduce ourselves.”

The Port of Tampa owns the land underneath Channelside and leased it to a mall operator.

That operator went bankrupt, and so did the now-bankrupt Irish bank that held the mortgage on the structure above ground.

Investors with Liberty Channelside LLC offered $5.5 million last spring, but were rejected by the Port commissioners in May, who have veto power over a new tenant and have publicly hoped Tampa Bay Lightning owner and Channelside area investor Jeff Vinik would buy and rehabilitate the property.

The Port then arranged a deal itself with the bankrupt bank to take control for $5.75 million last autumn, but needed the blessing of the bankruptcy judge involved.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Sontchi in Delaware ruled that the Irish Bank Resolution Corp., which holds rights to the Plaza, must show additional due diligence to determine who might eventually take control of the entertainment, retail and food complex.

Meanwhile, Liberty went to the bankruptcy court and offered $7 million, a price that on the surface, without detailed comparison of terms, was trumped by Mallah’s offer.

The Liberty group in December sued the Tampa Port Authority and port administrators, claiming they conspired to make the port “the only game in town” instead of accepting the Liberty Channelside bid.

“Because of the tortious, unconstitutional, and therefore unlawful, actions of the Port Authority in gaining this advantage,” the lawsuit claims the port “should not be allowed” to acquire control of the Channelside Bay Plaza complex, and they’re asking the presiding bankruptcy judge to intervene on their behalf.

tjackovics@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7817

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