Ready to soar in Centro Ybor
Several tenants believe new owners can finally lift the complex to its full potential.
By RICK GERSHMAN
Published January 12, 2007
It seems so eager to please, so desperate for attention, with its quirks and adorable little concepts.
Look over here, Mommy! You can watch a movie while you enjoy an appletini!
Daddy, over here! You can play videogames while you guzzle down Cuervo shots!
Hey, hey, hey: Upstairs, you can fill up a bowl with meat and veggies and I'll grill it for you - as many times as you want! Downstairs, I've lined up big-name comedians just to amuse you!
I've got a cigar lounge! I've got a sushi bar! Single malt scotches and microbrews!
I've got International Bazaar, whatever that is!
Why don't you love me?
It's not easy being Centro Ybor.
Officially, it's a movie, shopping and dining plaza in the heart of Ybor City.
Unofficially, it's Tampa Bay's red-headed stepchild, passed off from foster parent to foster parent. It's deeply debt-ridden and, in a few spots, desperately deserted.
So what will become of poor Centro? Will the 211,000-square-foot complex be razed in favor of condos? Absorbed by Wal-Mart? Converted into the newest megachurch?
Actually, Centro's latest sale - last month, to Chicago's M&J Wilkow - has some of the plaza's tenants expecting something entirely different:
A Cinderella story.
"I couldn't be happier," said Vicki Doble, who moved her Tampa Bay Brewing Co. into Centro Ybor last year, between the plaza's two sales.
"I do think there's going to be a future here," said Ivan Castillo, co-owner of Stogie Castillo's Cigar Lounge & Factory.
"I'm personally thrilled that someone with experience has taken over and shown an interest" in revitalizing the plaza, said Brian Cornacchia, owner of Big City Tavern.
Several tenants said over the past week that they are at least moderately optimistic that Centro Ybor might finally rise to its potential under the Wilkow ownership.
Everyone agrees some change is necessary. The massive 20-screen Muvico theater complex has drawn sparse attendance despite its four-screen "Premier area," which allows patrons to purchase beer, wine and liquor to enjoy during films.
Jim Michalak, a principal in the sale to Wilkow, said in December that it's very likely some of the movie complex will be turned into condos or office space. Wilkow officials could not be reached this week.
Wilkow purchased the plaza, which opened in 2000 at a cost of about $45-million, from the German investment fund BVT for about $16-million.
City of Tampa taxpayers also paid into the complex through a $9-million federally backed loan and a parking garage.
While many anchor tenants have remained, such as Muvico, GameWorks, Samurai Blue and the Tampa Improv, others have vanished.
Empty units are pervasive along the northern, downstairs portion of the complex, where retailers such as FYE and American Eagle once resided.
It might seem strange that Tampa Bay Brewing Company, an independent, successful Ybor City restaurant and bar entering its 10th year, would join a struggling corporate complex right down the street.
But Doble said she did not regret making the move to Centro Ybor a few months ago, and she's excited about the new ownership.
"They're wonderful people," she said. "They visit you and they talk with you. They buy centers that need help, and I think they really care about Centro. They want to turn it around."
Cornacchia, the Big City Tavern owner, said a big part of the process is persuading people that Ybor City is not as crime-ridden and problematic as they might think it is.
"To me, Number One is removing the stigma that Ybor is just for kids, that there's all this crime and it's dirty - but it's just not true," Cornacchia said. "The traffic is not what it used to be. They've fixed the noise ordinance. It's better now."
But it's tough getting that word out to a broad populace with the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, which doesn't have enough in its coffers to make much impact, Cornacchia said.
Though he appreciates the chamber's efforts, "It's like taking a knife to a gunfight."
Still, he's optimistic that if anyone can turn Centro Ybor around, it's Wilkow.
That's echoed by Michael Dunn, who co-owns Stogie Castillo's.
The Wilkow representative who visited, Dunn said, "was very interested in what we think needs to happen. I think with the right advertising campaign, this place could have turned around a long time ago.
"Every property Wilkow has purchased, they've turned around. I don't think they want to come in here and get rid of these shops. Without the shops, there's no reason for people to come here. I think, in this case, that change is good."
Rick Gershman can be reached at email@example.com or 226-3431.
[Last modified January 11, 2007, 09:16:01]
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