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Tampa complex nears opening

Channelside developers are now shooting for the Christmas season, giving nearby rival Centro Ybor a head start.

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
While Channelside's Mediterranean-style exterior are almost completed, most of its interiors are in the early stages of construction.

By KYLE PARKS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


TAMPA -- The new Channelside movie / restaurant / retail complex will be open for the holidays, its developers say.

Naysayers might be joking that they mean the July Fourth holiday. After all, this is a project that has changed tenants and opening dates so often, it's been hard to keep track.

But the Hogan Group vowed Thursday that most of Channelside's restaurants and shops will be open by Christmas, though it doesn't plan a grand opening like the one planned Oct. 5 by its competitor, the Centro Ybor complex a mile away.

"We don't see a need to do that," said Irene Pierpont, general manager for the 230,000-square-foot complex next to the Florida Aquarium, which plans to have a Regal movie theater, six restaurants with a wide range of menu prices and various retailers. "The stores and restaurants will be opening over a period of time, not all at once."

A so-called "soft" opening may not do much to quiet skeptics who've been circulating rumors about the Channelside project for weeks. Some have speculated that the project's Regal movie theater won't be built, which they said would prevent many of the other tenants from opening.

And the appearance of the complex has added to the talk. Though the Mediterranean exteriors are almost completed, most of Channelside's interiors are in the early stages of construction. One recent passer-by likened it to a movie set; another said it looks like something out of the movie The Truman Show.

No matter, says the Hogan Group, a Tampa developer that has worked for five years to get the $45-million project going. A tour of the site Thursday showed that the complex is indeed making progress.

By all appearances, Regal plans to open the 10-screen theater, even though its troubled finances have many talking about Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the company. Pierpont expects the theater to be open by the holidays, though there's been no official word yet from Regal officials.

Workers are now building the theater's interiors, including the seating for a giant-screen IMAX theater, the second of its type in the Tampa Bay area. And interior work is under way at Charley's Crab, one of the largest restaurants in the complex. The developers say interior work on the other shops and restaurants will start soon.

But even if it does open by the end of the year, Channelside still faces many questions:

If Regal opens the theater, how long will it be around? Can Channelside attract people to an area of downtown Tampa with little foot traffic? And will its pitch as a family-oriented place attract the well-heeled residents of nearby neighborhoods such as Harbour Island, Davis Islands and Hyde Park?

Channelside's developers, who have leased about 80 percent of the complex's space, are eager to quiet the skeptics.

"I frankly can't wait to get this place open and then invite all the news people in, cameras and all," said Gary Lewis, vice president of retail development for Hogan Group.

Much of the skepticism is a result of the project's troubled past.

Two years ago, the developers were promising an opening by November 1999, and the opening date has been repeatedly pushed back since then. Also, the company announced a number of tenants before they had signed leases, only to be embarrassed when companies such as the Gordon Biersch Brewing Co. and Max's Grille backed out.

Since his arrival almost a year ago, Lewis has assembled a lineup of restaurants with offerings ranging from seafood to Asian food to hamburgers. He hopes another big draw will be a 30,000-square-foot entertainment center called Pop City, which will have bowling, billiards, a sports bar and other activities.

Unlike his predecessors, Lewis is careful to talk only about tenants he has under contract, and he says all the project's announced tenants have signed leases except one, Ron Jon Surf Shop.

Though Ron Jon apparently plans to put a location in Channelside, a final agreement is still being worked out, he said. And though Lewis hopes to fill one of the complex's vacant spaces with a high-end steak restaurant, he said it's too early to give details.

Channelside's developers know Centro Ybor, a similar project in nearby Ybor City, will get tons of media coverage in the coming weeks. But all they can do, they say, is focus on getting their project rolling by December, with more attention coming during January's Super Bowl.

"We'll have most everything open by the Super Bowl, and the nighttime Gasparilla parade will be coming right by here," Pierpont said.

She hopes that Channelside will get as much as 40 percent of its business from folks already coming through the Channelside district, such as the thousands who go through the cruise ship terminal next door. But the complex's success probably depends on attracting the locals.

"People in South Tampa are going to have to see a compelling reason to go there instead of Old Hyde Park Village or WestShore Plaza," said David Conn, senior vice president of retail for the CB Richard Ellis real estate company in Tampa.

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