ST. PETERSBURG — The Manhattan Casino, a monument to the black community's resilience in the face of decades of harsh segregation, has become the latest campaign issue pitting Mayor Rick Kriseman against former Mayor Rick Baker.
The election fight this time: whether a trendy "Floribbean" fusion restaurant should occupy the iconic 92-year-old landmark at 642 22nd St. S.
To some, adding a hip new eatery to the neighborhood would demonstrate that Midtown is emerging from decades of poverty and failure. But it would also replace Sylvia's, an outpost of the famed Harlem soul food restaurant, that closed there last year.
That's why others see it as a harbinger of gentrification pushed by outsiders.
The space needs a new restaurant. Kriseman's administration recently received a proposal from a group headed by Ramon Hernandez, who operates two Pipo's Cuban restaurants in Pinellas County, a large catering business and a Tampa Bay Rays food concession and Gary Moran, a chef who opened the now-closed but once popular Wimauma restaurant in Tampa.
They want to open Callaloo, a restaurant that combines food indigenous to Florida and the Caribbean. The building's large commercial kitchen would also operate around the clock for Pipo's extensive catering and special events business, said the group's strategic consultant Mario Farias.
The proposed restaurant would have an affordable menu, Farias said. Lunches would cost $8 to $10; dinner, $12 to $18.
He said the ownership group, which includes two as-yet-unnamed African American partners, plans to hire up to 25 workers to operate the commercial kitchen on 22nd Street S, known a century ago as "The Deuces" when it was the thriving center of black life in the city.
"This is our vision: we want to take our employees that we train on 'The Deuces,' and plant them as owner-operators in new restaurants," Farias said.
Their unsolicited proposal, which was made after Kriseman rejected two bids in April, is "an interesting proposal that has some real strength to it," said city development administrator Alan DeLisle.
After receiving the proposal, the city reopened the window to accept more proposals through July 28. Staff will recommend a bid and Kriseman who will make the final decision.
But Kriseman is in the battle of his political life against Baker. African-American voters could decide the winner.
At Tuesday night's debate at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, the city's largest African-American congregation, Kriseman said he wanted a tenant that would survive longer than a few years. The city doesn't want "a house of cards that just collapses," the mayor said.
"What we want for Sylvia's is something that's sustainable," Kriseman said.
But Baker said he doesn't see the idea from the Pipo's group as a good fit for Midtown: "I don't get it." And he blamed Kriseman for bungling the Manhattan Casino, which the city spent $2.8 million to renovate, expand and reopen in 2011: "It was simply inattention."
Larry Newsome, a prominent black businessman, opened Sylvia's to great fanfare in November 2013. The city seized the building last June after a protracted battle with Newsome over failure to pay rent.
Newsome's failed ventures have links to both candidates: He held the long-term lease at Midtown's Tangerine Plaza, where anchor Walmart pulled out earlier this year. That lease was awarded under the Baker administration.
Farias said the group plans to spend at least $300,000 to renovate the building. A five-year lease would have a base rent of $40,000 annually plus $2,800 on sales tax on that rent. The group would also pay about $34,000 in property taxes.
The city would share in 1 percent of revenues after $2 million was reached in sales and the revenue-sharing would gradually increase, according to the proposal.
The group doesn't want to pay rent for the first six months and is asking for an annual city incentive of $1,500 for each resident hired who lives within the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area. That award would be capped at to a $40,000 per year. The city would also be responsible for the upkeep of the roof, exterior and HVAC replacement subject to an annual expenditure cap.
No other bids have been submitted yet, said DeLisle, who added he didn't want to evaluate the group's bid while the bidding process was still underway.
Bethel Community Baptist Church Pastor Manuel Sykes doesn't understand why the city has passed over black entrepreneurs' proposals for the Manhattan Casino and Commerce Park, a long vacant parcel across the street that Kriseman awarded last year to a consortium of businesses. Farias was involved in that deal, too.
And he said what's planned for that stretch of Midtown — "workforce" housing, a high-end motorcycle dealership and now a fusion restaurant — looks like gentrification.
"Once again, you know, it's just another sign of the overall way in which the administration finds that none of our indigenous plans are acceptable and that only people from outside, non-African Americans, can be afforded opportunities to come in and have success," said Sykes, a former local NAACP president.
Farias said the restaurant's two African-Americans co-owners would be identified as soon once final details are worked out. He said operations could begin with three months of a decision: "We want to be part of this community."