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Las Olas Riverfront Up For Makeover After Recent Purchase

FORT LAUDERDALE (CBS4)- Las Olas Riverfront, the ambitious waterside development that became a virtual ghost town, will have a new look and is set for a comeback after it was recently sold to investors.

The downtown entertainment and retail complex was sold Friday to a group of investors who are looking long term at extensive redevelopment to make the property a better fit with the Riverwalk promenade and the adjacent Himmarshee and Las Olas Boulevard business districts, according to the Sun Sentinel.

Immediate plans call for restoring the 3.5-acre center and filling now abandoned storefronts with shops and restaurants, local officials said.

"It appears they want to make it a heart of downtown again," said Chris Wren, the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. "They are motivated to get much more life going on and that will give them time to make careful decisions about the future."

The major investor is Michael Wekerle, vice chairman of the Toronto-based GMP Securities. Wekerle's WEK Properties recently purchased the old Escape Hotel as well as buildings in the Sunrise Lane area around the new B Ocean hotel, according to the Sun Sentinel.

Bill Holland, the executive chairman of one of Canada's largest wealth management companies – CI Financial is another purchaser of the development. The third partner is Dev Motwani, whose family has been longtime players on Fort Lauderdale beach through its company Merrimac Ventures.

Creditors bought the property at public auction in 2009.

The price that Wekerle and his partners paid is not known, but creditors documented in court records that they are owed $24.3 million in loans, interest charges, taxes and legal fees. The Broward County Property Appraiser's Office values the complex at $17.6 million, according to the Sun Sentinel.

Riverfront was planned 13 years ago as a major entertainment destination, but is now largely vacant.

The movie theater remains, and tourists can still catch the water taxi or river cruises from adjacent docks. The place picks up only late at night when partiers trek to Riverfront's Living Room nightclub.

Fred Behul, a longtime customer of Conenna's who works for a nearby county government agency, doesn't believe Riverfront can come back. "It's a lost cause," Behul said.

The complex, located just off Las Olas and Andrews Avenue, was heavily underwritten by tax money.

Taxpayers lost more than $3 million in deals leading up to the 1998 development of Riverfront. The school board initially paid $5.8 million for the land in the early 1980s, but sold it at a loss to the city after plans for an administration building collapsed. The city paid $2.9 million, and later re-sold the land to developers for $1.8 million.

In 2005, developers proposed tearing down the complex and replacing it with a hotel, condo tower and office building. That plan fell apart when the real estate market crashed.

Officials who have talked to the buyers said they have begun seeking new tenants. The buyers promised that whatever they do, they will keep promoting Riverfront as an entertainment and shopping destination.

(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Sun Sentinel contributed material for this report)

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