ST. PETERSBURG — It won’t immediately bring back the glory days when Duke Ellington and Ray Charles played here, but the opening of Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food restaurant at the Historic Manhattan Casino next weekend may be the start of better times for the city’s struggling 22nd Street South corridor
On Nov. 9, the famous restaurant plans to open its sole location outside its Harlem base on the ground floor of the rehabbed building at 642 22nd St. S.
City leaders say Sylvia’s will be a destination for tourists and residents at the north end of a sparsely developed business corridor that was the heart of St. Petersburg’s black business community.
For the surrounding area known as Midtown, which has struggled to overcome urban blight and poverty for decades, the restaurant isn’t the only reason for optimism. In the coming months, 22nd Street South will also welcome a microbrewery, an LED light technology manufacturer, along with a Cajun restaurant, ice cream parlor and consignment shop. Further south of the interstate, a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market will replace the Sweetbay grocery store that closed in February.
In December, St. Petersburg College expects to break ground on a 45,000-square-foot campus that will house a job training program in partnership with the LED company, LumaStream.
“We need to be clear that we’re in the early stages of this. The critical thing is to make sure we keep the momentum going and keep adding one thing after another after another,” said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse, whose district encompasses a large swath of Midtown.
“If that doesn’t happen, it will stop, and we’ll miss the opportunity in a recovering economy.”
The opening of Sylvia’s has been a long time coming.
A once-thriving nightspot, the Manhattan Casino has been closed for nearly 40 years. Its redevelopment was part of a wide-ranging redevelopment plan in Midtown after the 1996 riots in the neighborhood, with dozens of public and private projects totaling more than $200 million.
The results included the sprawling Pinellas County Jobs Corp. training facility, the Cater G. Woodson African-American History Museum and the Tangerine Plaza shopping center anchored by the old Sweetbay store.
The city invested nearly $3 million to renovate the casino building in 2005, but it was left unfinished for several years as the city struggled to find a tenant.
In May, the nonprofit Urban Development Solutions and city officials kicked off a $1.6-million renovation to convert the building’s first floor into Sylvia’s.
The building’s second flood is already open as an event hall.
“This is going to be a magnet. This is a destination restaurant for the entire city, which means people will come from all over,” Mayor Bill Foster said.
City officials hope the prosperity along 22nd Street continues.
The city has acquired land directly across the street from Sylvia’s that is zoned for manufacturing. Economic development officials have been talking with business owners they hope may eventually locate there and bring manufacturing jobs to the area.
“That’s the bottom line for Midtown revitalization is creation of jobs,” said Dave Goodwin, the city’s economic development director.