TAMPA Along the Hillsborough River downtown, next to a quiet park and a bubbling spring, sits an abandoned two-story brick building with sweeping views of the river.
Within the next two weeks, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn will make his choice among four restaurant companies hoping to renovate that brick building into Tampa's next waterfront restaurant.
"This is a fantastic site," Buckhorn said Tuesday. "There are boat slips, a park, a beautiful view. There's a real opportunity here. You could have festivals, food truck rallies, movies, lots of things."
The potential restaurant is one of the few structures dotting what was called The Heights, a city-backed project that once called for revamping a wide area along the river at North Highland Avenue and North Ola Avenue.
Much of that project stalled with the economic downturn, and the 3-D models and splashy billboards now lie abandoned in a nearby warehouse with a collapsing roof.
But that one 5,000-square-foot building along the river, known as the Waterworks, has become a focus for developers.
The candidate list includes owners of the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, who propose spending millions of dollars on the site. Columbia already has a waterfront site downtown, inside the Tampa Bay History Center.
Backers of Ella's Folk Art Café also applied to work on the site, potentially adding a second location to their thriving Seminole Heights spot.
The Patel Conservatory at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts also applied, proposing a performance/dance practice center with a café component.
"There's such a demand for space in our ballet program that we have to find space to help them grow," said Lorrin Shepard, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Straz Center.
The Straz Center proposal would cost about $1.5 million, with roughly half that coming from the City, Shepard said.
"We believe that the vibrancy created by arts programming can be a real catalyst for urban renewal and vibrancy for the area."
The fourth candidate is called Waterworks Enterprises, and includes backers of the original land-development project in the Heights area.
Buckhorn offered a long list of criteria he considers important: Which candidate has the financial resources to survive, which has the most creative ideas, how they would treat the riverfront and which has the name recognition to keep customers coming back.
The Waterworks building, once a city utility site, has about 5,000 square feet of floor space and rich features, including a natural spring that constantly bubbles fresh, cold water into the river and a roof that was recently redone.
Rows of palm trees dot a rolling park that's marked by brick-paved sidewalks and pathways to the river.
"It's a wonderful site," said David Murrell, owner of Channelside Watersports, which rents kayaks and boats from nearby docks. "I'd love to see more people come down here and see the space, enjoy the park."
The City hopes to revive a 5-acre park at the site, and is negotiating with Stetson law school next door to borrow unused parking space, said Bob McDonough, the city's interim urban development manager.
Once Buckhorn makes his pick, the developer must negotiate a lease and present the proposal to the city council for a final decision.