ST. PETERSBURG — After listening to a dozen speakers denounce his decision to allow a Floribbean restaurant to anchor the Manhattan Casino, Mayor Rick Kriseman on Thursday defended his choice, saying it was the only viable option to revive the historic but dormant building.
"I share everyone's desire that we see the Manhattan Casino come back to life in a way that truly does honor its past," Kriseman said.
He also stressed that the business plan submitted by the Callaloo Group would create up to 20 jobs for Midtown residents and help revive "The Deuces" — 22nd Street S — in time for the holidays.
The Manhattan Casino is a historic symbol of black resistance to segregation and self-reliance in the city. Kriseman announced his choice on Aug. 18. Days later, his decision was still roiling that community, which represents an important voting bloc he needs in next week's mayoral primary against former Mayor Rick Baker.
Thursday's City Council meeting was the first time Kriseman defended his decision in public. But the political hits kept on coming. Shortly afterward, one of the mayor's key allies, state Sen. Darryl Rouson, issued a statement blasting the mayor's choice. The St. Petersburg Democrat asked the council to kill the project and reopen the bidding process.
"The Manhattan Casino is a critical part of the character and cultural history of South St. Petersburg," said Rouson, who endorsed Kriseman. "One of the main purposes of rebuilding the Casino was to provide economic opportunity for African American entrepreneurs right here in our community, as well as to create a cultural point that we could be proud of. This proposal meets neither of those goals, and should be rejected."
Rouson said the lack of involvement of local black business owners — he apparently doesn't include Callaloo partner and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Vincent Jackson in that category — and the cuisine the restaurant plans to serve are a poor fit.
"A chain Cuban restaurant simply does not reflect the cultural character and history of the site in the way that a traditional soul food establishment would process," Rouson said in the statement.
Kriseman has explained that he chose Callaloo because he believes it has the greatest chance to succeed in the Manhattan Casino, which lost a soul food restaurant last year. In fact, Midtown has lost a grocery store and drug store in the past year.
Other Kriseman allies have also expressed discomfort with the mayor's call, including former NAACP leader Ray Tampa and the Rev. Clarence Williams of Greater Mount Zion AME Church.
Another ally, City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, also criticized the process, saying she felt excluded from the decision-making. She wanted assurances the black community wouldn't be completely cut out off from the 92-year-old building, where greats such as James Brown, Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald once performed.
Wheeler-Bown on Thursday asked for a report on the Callaloo proposal, but the mayor asked her to delay the discussion until Sept. 7 because his top economic development official, Alan DeLisle, was out of town. So council never officially discussed the mayor's choice.
Many others did, however, including some familiar faces from this year's contentious mayoral and council elections. Among those blasting Kriseman's pick where mayoral candidates Jesse Nevel and Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter.
"You can't take this from us," said Lassiter, who said the mayor was ignoring the wishes of "everyday people" in Midtown, who wouldn't support a Caribbean-Soul Food fusion restaurant.
Nevel said the proposal was another sign of gentrification in Midtown — and corruption.
"It's another economic assault on the black community," he said.
Others were more measured in their criticism.
Brother John Muhammad, a community activist, said older African-Americans had a strong emotional attachment to the Manhattan Casino and their concerns shouldn't be "dismissed as emotional."
Rev. Robert Ward, pastor of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church said he has witnessed the evisceration of black businesses in Midtown for 60 years now, including the gas station his family lost to the construction of Interstate 275.
"I have seen this city transform in a way that is not beneficial to the black community," said Ward, who supports Baker.
The mayor urged Midtown residents to work with Callalloo's partners to address their concerns about the future of the Manhattan Casino. The group is led by Ramon Hernandez, who runs the Pipo's chain of Cuban restaurants, and Mario Farias, a local political consultant who also secured a high-end motorcycle dealership and marina parts company to be built across from the casino on 22nd Street S, in the 14-acre Commerce Park development.
Said Kriseman: "This is an opportunity for everyone to be part of the revival of the Manhattan Casino."