An offer, chaos, then doubt

The offer comes for the city's stake in Centro Ybor, but questions abound.

By JANET ZINK, Times Staff Writer
Published August 24, 2007

TAMPA - City Council member Charlie Miranda was so frustrated Thursday with hearing complaints about the failure of Centro Ybor that he made an off-the-cuff proposal:

Give us 50 cents on the dollar for the city's $9-million mortgage on the financially troubled entertainment complex and deal with the new owners yourself.

Miranda had a taker.

Jacob "Booky" Buchman, unshaven and disheveled in an oversized T-shirt, patterned pants and tennis shoes, said he'd pay the city $4.5-million for the city's stake in the property, which Tampa officials have said is worthless.

"We have an offer on the table," cried out council member Tom Scott.

The council chambers dissolved into chaos. Questions swirled: Was the offer something the board could even consider?

What impact would it have on the city's negotiations with Centro's new owners?

City Attorney David Smith chased after Buchman, who left the meeting after dropping his bomb and stood in the foyer. Smith returned smiling broadly.

That smile must mean good news, Miranda said.

"God bless that individual," Miranda said of Buchman. "I'll shine his shoes every Thursday at City Hall for free."

Smith, who with the economic development staff has been negotiating for months to limit the city's losses on Centro Ybor, said he wanted to talk to Mayor Pam Iorio about the proposal and take a time-out to consider its implications.

An hour later, he came before the council again, this time somber. We need another week, he told them.

And he wanted more time to explain to them the city's original proposal.

In an interview later, Smith said he was "dubious" that Buchman's offer would go anywhere. Smith said that during the hour break the city staff had been meeting in one room as Buchman met with his associates and lawyers in another, and as the two groups talked, the offer changed.

Smith described Buchman, who refused to comment for this story, as "confused" and said he added unacceptable conditions to the proposal.

And Iorio, he said, "was unhappy with the way it makes the city look."

"This circus-like atmosphere is very embarrassing to the city," he said.

"We don't like to do business with someone standing up in council and trying to negotiate a deal at the 11th hour," said Iorio's chief of staff, Darrell Smith. "This is not an auction."

The drama unfolded at the end of a meeting in which the city staff had been trying to persuade council members, acting as the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, to approve the terms of an agreement with the new owners of Centro Ybor.

M&J Wilkow bought Centro Ybor late last year from a German investment firm for about $13-million - enough to just about cover the $16-million first mortgage on the property.

The city, though, holds a $9-million second mortgage payable to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

To help pay off that debt, the city negotiated a deal with Wilkow for a $100,000 initial payment; $25,000 a year for six years; $35,000 a year for the next six years; and increasing payments for the following 15 years.

Iorio also wants to help pay back the loan using $180,000 a year generated by a special taxing district that funnels increased property tax revenues back into Ybor City.

But some Ybor City property owners - including Alan Kahana and Joe Capitano, say Iorio could have gotten a better deal and Tampa's interest in the property may be worth more than city officials think.

Capitano and Kahana, who previously tried to buy the complex, sat in with Buchman in his discussions with the city.

Centro Ybor opened in 2001 with hopes that it would jump-start redevelopment in Ybor City. City officials kicked in the HUD loan to make the $50-million project happen.

But Centro has been a money-loser, and in 2004, the city stepped in to bail out developers by taking over payments on the HUD loan. That's costing taxpayers about $750,000 a year.

Buchman, 63, a native of Tampa, for years helped run his family's business, Modern Home Furnishings, in Ybor City. He owns multiple properties in Hillsborough County, including a Bayshore Boulevard condominium valued at $764,000 and a building on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City worth $577,000.

In 1998, he and his wife, Cookie, gave an endowment for a preschool at their synagogue in memory of their daughter, Amy Gail Buchman, who was killed by a drunken driver. The school is named for Amy, who was a speech pathologist. The Buchmans also established scholarships in Amy's name.

City Attorney Smith said he'll wait to hear back from Buchman.

"If it was a legitimate offer, I think we would have gotten it sooner," he said.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or 813 226-3401.