ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council on Monday approved a lease for the Manhattan Casino, a landmark building in the city's historic African-American business and entertainment community.
It was a controversial decision for some of the city's black residents, who see the choice of the Callaloo Group, considered outsiders, as an affront. They also questioned the selection process.
The Callaloo Group plans to open a Floribbean restaurant in the space most recently occupied by a failed soul food restaurant. The group consists of partners Ramon Hernandez, owner of Pipo's Cuban restaurants in Pinellas County, ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneer wide receiver Vincent Jackson and development director Mario Farias.
Monday, the Callaloo Group showcased key African-Americans with the project, Jackson, Callaloo's vice president, Deborah Figgs-Sanders, the former executive director of the Childs Park YMCA, who will work as event coordinator, and Shawn Brown, entertainment coordinator.
The mission goes beyond a providing a great restaurant, Jackson said. It includes creating jobs and entrepreneurship, he said.
Figgs-Sanders, emphasizing her St. Petersburg roots, urged the community to bury their differences and work together.
"We know all the passion that has been involved in the whole process," she said. "Community is my purpose. I've reached out. We have reached out. We will continue to reach out."
Also speaking on behalf of the lease was the Rev. Basha Jordan, grandson of Elder Jordan Sr., the African-American businessman who donated land for nearby Jordan Park and who built the Manhattan Casino decades ago.
Mayor Rick Kriseman rejected two prior proposals for the facility. The Callaloo Group subsequently submitted an unsolicited proposal, which it revised after the city put out a notice requesting alternate proposals. City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle has said that the Callaloo Group was picked over three other proposals, including the locally based Manhattan Casino Legacy Collaborative Inc., because of Hernandez's experience and the entity's financial backing and expertise.
"For how long did people drive through 22nd Street. ... I'm so excited to see what is happening in that corridor," Kriseman said before the vote. "This is an opportunity to create economic revitalization."
DeLisle said that under the lease, the first floor will include "a full-service Southern restaurant mixed with a Caribbean flair," a food-to-go area, a full-service commissary and a bar and lounge. The second floor will serve as an event space and a performing music venue. The lease is for five years, with three renewal options. The Callaloo Group will pay rent starting at $40,000 annually, but will not begin doing so until the seventh month of the lease.
Council member Jim Kennedy asked questions about the Callaloo's business plan and wondered why the group should get a six-month deal.
Council member Amy Foster also questioned the concessions. DeLisle defended the deal, saying for instance, that the Callaloo will be responsible for all of the equipment that will be needed.
"For us to get the deal that we got today is remarkable," DeLisle said.
Farias said the closed restaurant was stripped and that it will take $300,000 to open the doors.
Nurse strongly supported the move to give the Callahoo Group the lease.
"I wish I could tell you it's close," he said. " It's very clear that this has a better chance than the alternatives."
Council member Charlie Gerdes asked that language be added to preserve the cultural traditions of the Manhattan Casino, specifically performances that honor "the tradition and genre" of its legacy.
The Manhattan Casino, which dates back to 1925, hosted some of the nation's top musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald. It was a popular venue for the segregated African-American community, hosting big bands, debutante parties, school and fraternal events and gospel stars. The city restored the building at 642 22nd St. S for $2.8 million. It reopened with much fanfare in 2011, but Sylvia's Soul Food restaurant, which opened in 2013, was evicted in 2016 for failing to pay rent.
The Callaloo — named for a popular vegetable in the Caribbean that can be cooked like collard greens — is viewed by some as offering a cuisine unconnected to the local community.
"We wanted something that was melodic," Farias said, referring to the name during an interview. " We felt it played an interesting role in connecting the soul food or Southern cooking to the Caribbean cuisine."
Farias, who said that the restaurant will incorporate callaloo into its menu, said he understands the community's reservations about his group.
"We have taken it into account from day one," he said. "That's why we hired within the community. Deborah is within the community. Shawn Brown has been within the community for many, many years. ... I live in South St. Petersburg."
He said the restaurant is expected to open in mid-January and the ballroom in mid-December. Also under the lease, a section of the building will be dedicated to highlighting its history.
"We also have worked with the city to ensure that at least 25 percent of our employees come out of the CRA (South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area). Also, our goal is during the next five years to open more restaurants with owners that come from the CRA area as our partners."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.