When developer Ken Stoltenberg moved to Tampa in 1998, he saw potential in an area where few others were willing to venture.

As he took what was then the Crosstown Expressway from his home in Palma Ceia to his office in Orlando, he’d always look over at the Channel district, imagining what could go there.

At that time, the district was a mix of vacant lots and empty warehouses, with an adult movie theater on the corner where Publix Super Markets Inc. has proposed a new store.

“It was a blank canvas,” Stoltenberg said. “If you look at downtown, the blocks are really small. There really wasn’t anything [in the Channel district] worth saving. “Downtown, you have folks with older buildings that were built in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and what they want to get for them increases the land prices to the point that it’s hard to make deals work.”

In 2003, Stoltenberg and business partner Frank Bombeeck kicked off a development deal that would mark the start of more than a decade’s worth of work. The pair’s projects would help lay the foundation for what’s now an up-and-coming urban neighborhood.

In the coming months, the pair plan to begin construction on Channel Club, a 21-story apartment tower and Publix store on a long-vacant lot between Twiggs and Madison streets. Landing an urban grocer, business and city officials say, is the linchpin to a fully revitalized city center, creating a true live-work-play neighborhood.

Stoltenberg has been in pursuit of a grocery store for the Channel district for more than a decade, said Linda Saul-Sena, an urban planer who served on Tampa City Council from 1987 to 1995 and from 1999 to 2010.

“He has a very long-term vision,” Saul-Sena said. “He has a quiet confidence and a dogged, wonderful persistence in pursuing what he wants, and it’s a very positive thing.”

Stoltenberg and Bombeeck, principals of Mercury Advisors, spent two years planning Grand Central at Kennedy, a mixed-use condominium and retail development between Kennedy Boulevard and Madison Street. It broke ground in 2005.

By the time Grand Central was wrapping up construction, in late 2007, the market was rapidly declining. Mercury Advisors was able to sell about 70 of the 216 units.

“If we’d been six months earlier, I wouldn’t be talking to you, because I’d be on a beach somewhere,” Stoltenberg said, chuckling.

They were also about start another development on the site where Channel Club will be built.

“We were ready to get going with a condominium there, and it was 2008, when the market totally tanked,” Stoltenberg said. “We had a construction loan lined up and ready to go, but we didn’t draw on it, thankfully.”

Faced with no market for condos, Mercury Advisors decided to rent the remaining units in the building.

With high-end finishes and larger unit sizes, condos typically cost more than apartments to build, making it difficult to profit from renting out a condo project.

“The economics don’t work well,” Stoltenberg said, “but they worked well enough that we could tread water.”

They’ve sold some units over the years, with 60 left in the building. As leases on those units end, Mercury Advisors will be putting them on the market.

“We always knew the market would come back,” he said. “It always does, and the one thing I’ve learned is, if you wait long enough you’ll get an opportunity.”