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Sunday, Sep 23, 2018
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Romano: The choice does not have to be poverty or gentrification

The memories must be protected. The music and the lore, too.

On the other hand, the rent is due and jobs are scarce.

And that, in a nutshell, is the conundrum of the Manhattan Casino and the proposed Commerce Park project along 22nd Street S in St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood.

Is it gentrification to bring a Floribbean-style restaurant into a historic African-American nightclub as well as a high-end motorcycle shop across the street, or is it a way to create much-needed jobs in a neighborhood that has seen more plans than progress in recent decades?

And when there aren't enough black-owned businesses in the pipeline, can a community really afford to turn its nose up at investors and employers just because they're new to the neighborhood?

As a boy, some 50 years ago, Lou Brown would sit by a second-floor window in the family house off 23rd Street and be serenaded by the music drifting down the block from the Manhattan Casino. Today, as a Realtor, he wrestles with the fear that jobs will not materialize and housing will grow too expensive as the neighborhood he remembers is at risk of being turned into something else.

"You want to see development and you want to see the tax base rise, but if it displaces people that have been in that neighborhood for years then you've created an entirely different problem,'' Brown said. "I understand it's difficult. And it is a very interesting debate.

"You can say a rising tide should benefit everyone but, honestly, many times it doesn't. Even in 2017, we're still dealing with some vestiges of racism.''

He's right, of course. Racism may not always be as ugly as a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., but it still exists. It exists in loans that are denied. In educational opportunities that are not fulfilled. In deals that are ignored, and expectations that are lowered.

And, yet, I think the city is doing the right thing with the Manhattan Casino.

The building has been mostly unoccupied for 47 of the past 50 years. The city invested around $3 million in rebuilding it a decade ago, and a soul food-style restaurant had a mostly disastrous tenure.

The city accepted bids for new dining concepts, and only the proposal from the Callaloo Group, which owns Pipo's Cuban restaurants, had the proper finances and a business plan that seemed feasible.

Just as important, the Callaloo Group has a plan to hire, train, promote and even turn over potential franchise restaurants to workers from Midtown.

"When you have buildings or lots that have been vacant and deteriorating for years, and you have people with resources and experience who are willing to get involved, why would you squawk?'' said Basha Jordan, whose grandfather Elder Jordan built the Manhattan Casino in the 1920s.

"I know this is going to be good for the community because I know the hearts of the individuals involved. They're bringing economic development, and they're bringing jobs. They're in sync with maintaining the spirit of the neighborhood and extending the legacy of Elder Jordan.''

Basha Jordan, who runs the Hope Alive Ministry, originally lent his name to another proposal for the Manhattan Casino. He says that group's ideas were intriguing but its financing was lacking. He now has hopes of merging some of those ideas with the Callaloo Group's plans.

Meanwhile, like clockwork, the idea of economic development in Midtown has become a wedge in the city's mayoral race. Former mayor and current challenger Rick Baker has essentially accused incumbent Rick Kriseman of dismissing the heritage and wishes of Midtown residents by choosing the Callaloo Group. It's an effective campaign pitch, but it ignores the reality of the bids that were received.

"I know there's a lot of angst about gentrification, and some of that is being stirred up by politics and people trying to use the fear of gentrification to cause consternation among voters,'' said City Council member Karl Nurse, whose district includes the Manhattan Casino.

"One of the ironies is that people want their neighborhoods to have less blight, and to be safer, but at the same time they have this fear of being pushed out. I understand the angst, but in terms of what's really happening, that's not the case.''

History says the residents of Midtown have reason to be skeptical of developers and City Hall. You need only go back to the communities displaced by the building of Tropicana Field, and the promised economic boost that never materialized, to understand why today's promises might not be welcomed in every neighborhood.

As downtown continues to grow and creep westward, there are reasonable questions about whether it will eventually begin to swallow up the streets on the south side of Central Avenue.

The Rev. Manuel Sykes, of Bethel Community Baptist Church, is concerned with new housing construction in Midtown that he says is already pricing out current residents, and it makes him wary of the 22nd Street S projects. Sykes said the city needs to be more aggressive in providing affordable housing.

"I know capitalism exists to make a profit,'' Sykes said. "I also know politicians are elected to serve, and if part of the population is ignored and under-resourced, then it's the elected official's responsibility to advocate for those people they were elected to serve.

"I'm telling you now we are seeing gentrification. Give it another decade, and you'll know what I was talking about.''

The choice doesn't have to be poverty or gentrification. There are ways to make economic development work for everyone. The job placement plans proposed by the Callaloo Group are tiny in the grand scheme of things, but important as a model for the rest of Midtown.

All these years later, the Manhattan Casino could once again be a community's beacon.

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