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Investor Ready To Buy Channelside Complex

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TAMPA - The Channelside entertainment complex soon could have a new owner who wants to bring in upscale retail shops and cater to the growing trickle of residents moving downtown.

New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. is negotiating the price and plans to close the deal within three weeks, owner Ben Ashkenazy said.

``Tampa is growing and is a few years away from having a lot of residential development downtown,'' Ashkenazy said. ``People in Tampa need a good, safe place to go and enjoy themselves.''

The 4.5-acre complex of restaurants, shopping and nightlife is 85 percent leased and is located along Garrison Channel, next to the city's cruise ship port and The Florida Aquarium.

Ashkenazy said his private investment firm had $1 billion in assets and owned 40 properties in 10 states, mostly large shopping centers and office buildings. His attraction to Channelside, he said, is that the center's array of restaurants is doing well, and dozens of high-rise condominium projects are planned for the area.

The complex, which has struggled to keep tenants in the past, is doing well and is in a good position to improve, Ashkenazy said. The way to do that, he added, is to make Channelside a ``lifestyle center'' for residents and tourists.

Ashkenazy said he had not talked yet to specific companies but wants to target retail chains such as Crate & Barrel, Barnes & Noble Booksellers and Starbucks.

``It doesn't need a whole lot, but the more quality tenants you have, the better,'' Ashkenazy said. ``Everybody feeds off that.''

Orix Real Estate Equities, the company that developed and owns the 4-year-old complex, quietly put the property up for sale in January. Orix officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but officials at CB Richard Ellis, the leasing agent, confirmed the negotiations.

The Tampa Port Authority owns the land beneath Channelside and voted Tuesday to sign over the rest of the 40-year lease to the Ashkenazy firm.

Port spokesman Steve Valley said the sale and further development of Channelside would enhance the port's cruise business.

``That's one of the marketing tactics the port uses for cruise passengers,'' Valley said. ``Tampa is a destination itself. When cruise passengers come to Tampa, there are things to do - restaurants, nightlife and the trolley.''

Ashkenazy, 34, got his start in real estate at age 17, when he and a partner borrowed $2 million to buy a shopping center in the Bronx, New York. He made headlines in 2001 with the $175 million purchase of three Barney's stores, on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, New York, and in Chicago and Beverly Hills, Calif. The company's portfolio includes retail and office properties in Houston, New York and Plantation.

The Channelside project cost $49 million in 2001. It has competed somewhat with Ybor City's Centro Ybor, a similar entertainment complex nearby. Both complexes feature restaurants, bars and a movie theater, and both have struggled. However, new tenants, including Hooters in 2003 and the more recent Signature Room restaurant and Splitsville bowling alley, have helped Channelside draw more weekend traffic. The newest addition, a Bennigan's restaurant, opened Wednesday.

Christine Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, said buying Channelside was a wise investment and good for future downtown development.

``A residential base alone doesn't make a market for retail, but it creates a base environment that's secure and welcoming,'' Burdick said.

Reporter Shannon Behnken can be reached at (813) 259-7804.

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