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What's Brewing

Channel's character debated

By SUSAN THURSTON
Published July 28, 2006


Many would agree the vision for Channelside is simple. Make it a premier entertainment destination for locals and visitors with restaurants, shops and a movie theater.

But does that include nightclubs and bars? And what is a nightclub? A country-western bar? A dueling piano bar?

Those are some of the questions swirling in the latest controversy over Channelside and its tenant lineup.

Last week, Guy Revelle, a partner in Stumps Supper Club, Howl at the Moon, Splitsville and Tinatapas at Channelside, went to the Tampa Port Authority meeting to air concerns about Channelside's new owner, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., leasing space to two country bars on the second level. Sling Shots opened in January, and McGraw's Country Club Saloon is set to open later this summer. The Port Authority owns the land under the center.

Revelle and his partner, Mark Gibson, say the businesses violate Channelside's land lease with the port, which prohibits standalone nightclubs. They argue Ashkenazy should never have signed the leases without forwarding them first to the Port Authority for review.

Revelle and Gibson worry the influx of bar-only businesses will create a mini-Ybor City, drawing a not-so-savory late-night crowd and drowning out the restaurants and stores still struggling to survive.

They fear even one serious incident, such as a shooting or big drug bust, could kill Channelside's reputation as a safe place for families, tourists and working professionals.

Caught in the middle is Michael Dennis, whose company owns interconnected Sling Shots, Banana Joe's, Margarita Mama's and Velvet Room. He signed a lease to open McGraw's on the west side of the theaters, and construction on the 8,500-square-foot space is well under way.

He feels "sucker-punched" by the latest criticism and questions the motives. He suspects Revelle and Gibson's ire relates to their ongoing lawsuit with Channelside's owner over upping the rent for Stumps and Howl at the Moon. He also wonders whether Revelle and Gibson actually want the center to fail so they can open other Splitsvilles elsewhere, a claim the partners vehemently reject.

Hashing it out will take time and money, all of which distracts from the main mission of boosting Channelside's profile and profitability.

Parking and marketing remain huge obstacles to the center's success. I'd guess they threaten Channelside's growth more than line dancing and wild cowgirls do.

Anyone who has driven to Channelside on a weekend night knows parking can be a challenge - and even a deterrent for future visits.

Good luck finding a spot in the Port Authority's garage across from Channelside. Chances are, cruise passengers not returning for a week got there first.

Then there's the $6 valet. Not ridiculous, provided you don't mind waiting 20 minutes to retrieve your car. Then don't forget to tip.

There's also self-parking at the lot where the Starship Yacht docks. It's free during lunch but goes up to $5 a car after 1:30 p.m., which seems needlessly early.

Though adversaries on the tenant issue, Revelle, Gibson and Dennis agree they survive on weekend night business and special events.

Business has gradually improved in the past five years, but the daytime and weeknight traffic remains sluggish. Hooters and Bennigan's get a decent lunch crowd; others are slow, if not dead.

Admittedly, getting a stable tenant mix has been difficult. Signature Room Grille closed above Hooters last fall. Big surprise?

Not really.

The restaurant opened in 2004 amid expectations of capturing the new wave of residents within walking distance in the Channel District. Problem was, no one lived there yet. Even today, the Channel District is largely under construction.

Even when the expected residential masses come, do people want to pay top bucks for a steak above Hooters? Keep in mind, the original Signature Room is on the 95th floor of the Chicago's John Hancock building.

Ashkenazy, which took over ownership of Channelside less than 1 years ago, has fallen woefully behind in marketing the center.

Most people call the surrounding neighborhood, and all its pending condos, Channelside, when the name is actually the Channel District. Channelside is the exclusive name for the entertainment complex.

City street signs don't help either. They just offer directions to the Aquarium and Seaport. No mention of the neighborhood, Channel District, or the destination, Channelside.

Three weeks ago, Channelside resumed its Friday night summer fireworks at 9 p.m. The shows were a big hit last year and drew a lot of visitors.

But unless you live within earshot, you probably didn't know about the kickoff. No press releases went out. No radio plug. Nada.

In fact, Channelside's marketing director, Susan Martin, left several months ago to work for Hyde Park Village. Her name remains as the contact on Channelside's Web site, www.channelsidetampa.com.

So while lawyers and bigwigs draft letters and schedule meetings to sort out the tenant mess, plenty of work remains. Let's hope someone takes the lead.

THE LAST DROP: A new bar and restaurant is joining the mix downtown. The Fly opens Saturday at 1201 N Franklin St. It's modeled after one in San Francisco and will offer an interesting mix of food items from around the world.

Susan Thurston can be reached at thurston@sptimes.com or 226-3394.

[Last modified July 27, 2006, 09:14:06]


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