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Charlotte Observer: New EpiCentre Owners Say They Have Deal With MSNBC

MSNBC has signed a deal to broadcast from the first floor of the EpiCentre during the Democratic National Convention, the new owners of the uptown entertainment complex told the Observer Monday. The cable news channel has signed a short-term lease to set up a stage in the common area on the first floor of the EpiCentre, said Doug Stephan, a principal with Vision Ventures. The group is part of Blue Air 2010 LLC, which owns the EpiCentre. Blue Air also includes Paul Picarazzi, a principal with Vision Ventures, and Geoffrey Curme, a principal with Mount Vernon Asset Management. The EpiCentre is also talking with other networks and groups about leasing space during the DNC, Stephan said. One group is talking about using the roof to shoot footage of the city's skyline. Stephan said details about MSNBC's involvement at the EpiCentre are still being worked out, but that the channel has the right to use the space at all hours day or night. MSNBC could not immediately be reached for comment. During the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, MSNBC broadcast 20 hours a day. MSNBC asked that all office buildings and residential apartments visible from where it was broadcasting leave their lights on until midnight to make the city look "as exciting as possible," according to information published on the website for Visit Denver, the city's tourism arm. In an interview with the Observer, the new EpiCentre owners talked about their vision for the complex, which is getting a $15 million makeover. The EpiCentre emerged from Chapter 11 in April, nearly two years after its previous owner put the project into bankruptcy protection to avoid foreclosure. Now, the new owners are rolling out what they say is Phase One of planned improvements, which they say range from scraping up three years' worth of gum stuck to the walkways to installing a $1 million state-of-the-art security system. They anticipate the changes will be complete before the convention, scheduled for Sept. 4-6. Preparing for 35,000 visitors Sitting across from Time Warner Cable Arena and occupying a city block at College and Trade streets, the EpiCentre is viewed by city officials as an important part of uptown's redevelopment. That is especially true now as the convention is expected to draw more than 35,000 people to the center city. "It's properly named - it's at the center of our network of hotels," said Michael Smith, CEO of Charlotte Center City Partners, which promotes uptown. "It's an essential hospitality asset." Last week, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich swung by the EpiCentre during his campaign tour and made a stop at Enso Asian Bistro & Sushi Bar. Originally designed to feel like a European street with narrow cobblestone walkways, the EpiCentre has been criticized by some patrons for being confusing. It lacked signage and some walkways were dim. Some visitors worried about their safety. The new owners want to change the complex from "not-so-approachable to approachable," Picarazzi said. Entranceways are being renamed E-Street and The Muse. The entrance to the Muse will feature new ironwork, and European-style custom-made lights and ceiling fans will be hung over the walkway. The owners are also adding new benches and sculpture on the first floor. The Muse will be "cozier" than it currently feels, Picarazzi said. A temporary valet stand is being replaced by an enclosed valet lounge built out of glass and limestone. The escalator off College Street will get a new, wider overhang, also built out of glass to avoid blocking views. The owners said they are upgrading the security system "more than ten-fold," adding cameras so there are no blind spots, including in the elevators and adjoining parking garage. The complex will be repainted a palette of deep blues, oranges, purples and reds, inspired by the theme of "fire," Picarazzi said. 'An underserved market' The makeover will extend beyond appearances. The group has been evaluating all aspects of the project, including management, construction and operations, and has been reaching out to local police and fire departments and neighboring hotels to improve relationships. They plan to hold special events and partner with local museums and nonprofits. "We're understanding there is an underserved market for activities for families in the daytime and early evening, and we want to provide those opportunities," said Ed Camp, director of business development and public relations with Jones Lang LaSalle America's, Inc., which is managing the EpiCentre. "We want to continue adding to the events that families can do together." Built on the Lynx light rail line, the 302,000-square-foot EpiCentre is filled with a mix of office and mostly retail space. Tenants include a night club, movie theater, restaurants, bars, an insurance agent and a drugstore. There is also a hotel and parking deck. The project is about 87 percent leased and has interest from potential tenants for the remaining 40,000 square feet, the owners said. The project had been mired in controversial court battles since the original lender, Regions Bank, stared foreclosure proceedings in July 2010 after the loan came due. Shortly after, the two limited liability companies that owned the complex - Pacific Avenue and Pacific Avenue II - filed for bankruptcy protection, stalling the foreclosure. Blue Air bought the note in November 2010. A year later, Blue Air sued the developers, accusing them of wrongfully diverting money from the troubled entertainment complex before it filed for bankruptcy protection. Allegations also included claims of self-dealing, falsified bookkeeping and making numerous false statements in court, claims the developers have denied. The developers who conceived of the mixed-use project, Afshin Ghazi and George Cornelson III, no longer have any connection to the project. Copyright 2012 The Charlotte Observer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.