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Liberty Group unveils plans for Tampa's Channelside retail complex

TAMPA — Channelside Bay Plaza is the Walking Dead of Tampa Bay real estate.

The entertainment complex has been foreclosed upon and nearly abandoned by the businesses that once filled it. Purported saviors have come and gone. Cruise ship passengers might think it's the world's biggest Hooters — one of its last tenants. The redevelopment of downtown's Channel District cannot continue while it straddles the line between life and death.

So why would two successful real estate investors — Punit Shah and Santosh Govindaraju — want anything to do with this zombie property?

"That's what we do," Shah said. "Santosh and I are intimately familiar with real estate — particularly complex and distressed real estate."

At least they know what they're in for. Shah and Govindaraju went public on Monday with their long-rumored plans to buy and bring Channelside Bay Plaza back from the other side.

Their new joint venture, Liberty Channelside LLC, has signed an agreement to purchase Channelside's lease from Irish Bank Resolution Corp. The bank foreclosed on the property in 2010 after the previous out-of-town owner defaulted on a $27 million loan.

Liberty Channelside did not disclose what it will pay for the complex. But Shah said it's a cash deal — no financing, no debt.

The bid must be approved by the Tampa Port Authority's governing board, which owns the land under Channelside. The board could vote on the matter as soon as its May 21 meeting. If it approves the bid, Liberty Channelside would close on June 4.

Shah, 32, is president and COO of the Liberty Group. Govindaraju, 39, is the portfolio manager and CEO of Convergent Capital Partners of Tampa. Together, their firms have acquired more than $550 million of real estate in the past four years. That includes last year's acquisition of the Mercantile tower, which they're turning into the high-end hotel Aloft Tampa Downtown.

They met April 4 with Mayor Bob Buckhorn to discuss their new hotel venture. Then their talks turned to Channelside.

"They just wanted to make sure that I knew that they were serious and that they were fully engaged and committed to the success of that," Buckhorn said. "If you look at their track record and their investments to date, they've got a lot of money at play out there, made a lot of investments, been very successful.

"Obviously, this is a bigger project than what they've done before, but I think they're capable of doing it."

• • •

Channelside was built in 2001. When Shah moved to Tampa a decade ago, the complex hummed at night with bars, restaurants and nightclubs.

Shah wants to see that again. But he and his partner want people to see the complex in a new light — daylight. To that end, they'll add workspace to the 234,520-square-foot building.

"What we're anticipating is making it a mixed-use lifestyle center with offices, restaurants, dining and bars, entertainment and a hotel," said Shah.

They also want to update Channelside's look and build a pedestrian bridge to the parking garage across Channelside Drive. They also want to improve the garage entrance and exit.

No lineup of potential tenants has been revealed. Shah said he wants restaurateurs and businesses interested in coming to Channelside to start contacting him. But they envision adding fast-casual dining, "unique" retail and "first-class" entertainment.

They want to appeal to several demographics: fans attending Lightning games at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Florida Aquarium visitors and the more than 900,000 cruise ship passengers who stream through the Port of Tampa annually.

But their main demographic is the "discriminating" young professionals who now live, work and play in downtown Tampa and the Channel District.

"They're very discriminating, highly educated, with high disposable income," said Shah. "Those are the ones we think live in the downtown and Channel area that we want to utilize Channelside."

The name Channelside will stay, Shah said, but the brand and perception must change.

"We have to figure out how to tell the community what is Channelside and how we want people to see it," he said. "How do we make a lasting and significant impression?"

Now that Shah has gone public, he wants public input. Liberty Channelside LLC will hold a public forum on its plans at the aquarium at 5:30 p.m. May 8.

But they're not the only players there. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik also owns the Times Forum lease and 12 nearby acres.

Last year, he was the frontrunner for the Channelside lease, but backed off because of legal complications. Vinik's plans for his land holdings, though, are still unknown. His representatives could not be reached for comment Monday.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Rick Danielson contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

Liberty Group unveils plans for Tampa's Channelside retail complex 04/22/13 [Last modified: Monday, April 22, 2013 11:02pm]
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