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Port commissioner questions doing business with companies that sue

Published:   |   Updated: February 20, 2014 at 10:54 PM

Tribune staff

With all the legal drama over who will control Channelside Bay Plaza, Tampa Port Authority Board Commissioner Patrick Allman had a pointed question: Should the City of Tampa ever do business with a developer who sues governments when they don’t get their way?

Allman came to this question after the latest legal salvo between the Port Tampa Bay board and developers trying to take over Channelside.

On one side, the port already owns the land under Channelside, and is trying to buy the above-ground shopping complex from the bankrupt Irish bank that holds a mortgage on the complex. The port recently offered $5.75 million, and set a deal with the bank. On the other side are two developers, Liberty Group and Convergent Capital, who cried foul because they tried to negotiate a similar deal with the port, but acrimony and accusations helped shut down those talks. Since then, Liberty and Convergent have come to the bankruptcy court with a $7 million bid, and the judge involved says the whole process might need to be re-opened for bidders.

All that didn’t sit well with port leaders who issued a statement, saying in part that “nobody won, everyone lost” with that ruling.

“A bigger question to ask is whether or not local public entities should be doing business with companies whose dominant negotiating style is to use litigation as a means to get more favorable business terms for themselves,” Allman wrote in a statement to the Tribune. “For example, what happens if the City of Tampa doesn’t select the Liberty Group to develop a hotel in Ybor City on its current [request for proposals], will they be sued? If they are selected and can’t force their desired business terms on the City of Tampa will they then sue the City of Tampa?”

Already, Liberty and Convergent are pressing for damages in the courts for what they see as damage to their reputations in town.

Litigation is expensive and causes delays, Allman notes, and he doesn’t like such tactics.

“I am committed to doing what is best for the community in both the short and long run and will not be bullied by the threat of or actual litigation,” he wrote. “I am confident that community leaders of other public entities feel the same way as well.”

Last autumn, the Tampa invited developers to bid on two city-owned pieces of land in the historic Ybor City district. The city pitched a parcel at the northeast corner of Nuccio Parkway and Seventh Avenue as a hotel site — next to the Volunteers of America building and the Marti-Maceo building. The second parcel is at the northwest corner of 12th Avenue and North 17th Street in Ybor City, suitable for apartments or condominiums, the city said.

Liberty Group made a proposal for the potential hotel site, which if successful would add to its downtown portfolio. Liberty and Convergent are presently renovating the former Mercantile Bank building into an Aloft-brand hotel that should open this summer.

Officials with Liberty Group declined to respond to Allman’s comments.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn sits on both the board of commissioners for Port Tampa Bay, and would also have sway over which entity would be picked for a potential hotel site in Ybor City.

Buckhorn was traveling in Tallahassee Thursday and not available for comment.

As for other port officials, several declined to comment. Commissioner Sandra Murman said her thoughts are with the business owners trying to operate in the struggling Channelside complex, and the taxpayers in the surrounding area. “They deserve a resolution — they have suffered enough,” she said. “My hopes are that the bankruptcy gets solved quickly so the port can get back to business and watch our area grow and prosper.” (813) 259-7919 Twitter: @DailyDeadline

Includes reporting by staff writer Ted Jackovics.