ST. PETERSBURG — Days before the mayoral primary, Mayor Rick Kriseman's decision to let a Floribbean restaurant open in Midtown's historic Manhattan Casino has caused political angst within the voting bloc he can least afford to lose: the black community.
Last week the mayor chose the Callaloo Group to open a new eatery in the city-owned building. The group is led by veteran restaurateur Ramon Hernandez, who operates the successful Pipo's Cuban restaurants, and includes former Bucs wide receiver Vincent Jackson.
Kriseman said they have the experience and capital to operate a successful restaurant at the Manhattan Casino, a nearly century-old landmark that harkens back to when 22nd Street S was the center of black life during segregation. The mayor also wants to avoid another failed venture in Midtown, which in the past year has already lost a Walmart grocery store and a Walgreens drug store.
But Kriseman's Aug. 18 decision stunned his supporters in the black community and has given ammunition to his opponent in Tuesday's primary, former Mayor Rick Baker. The Republican has challenged Kriseman's support in a traditionally Democratic stronghold throughout the campaign.
Greater Mount Zion AME Church's Rev. Clarence Williams, who has endorsed Kriseman, said the Manhattan Casino is the talk of barber shops and beauty salons across the black community.
Former NAACP president Ray Tampa, who also supports the mayor, compared Kriseman announcing his Manhattan decision shortly before next week's primary to former FBI Director James Comey telling Congress that he was reopening the inquiry into Hillary Clinton's emails days before the 2016 presidential election.
"It was totally unnecessary," Tampa said. "From a political viewpoint, people who support him are spending so much time trying to explain why he made that decision."
Another steadfast Kriseman supporter, Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, the lone black member of City Council, said she was frustrated with her lack of input into the mayor's decision. She said Kriseman told her his choice just hours before he made the announcement.
"Why am I being excluded?" she said.
Later, she sent the Tampa Bay Times this statement: "I need concrete and specific assurances there will be significant and continuous participation and decision making by members of the Midtown African-American community in regards to the policies and operations of the Manhattan Casino portion of this project. This is not just a building. It is of collective memories and heritage. Collective memories hold communities together."
Kriseman's decision has stirred fears in Midtown that their neighborhood is being gentrified at the expense of black residents and black businesses. The mayor needs to better communicate why he chose the Callaloo Group, Williams said, to ease fears that he is insensitive to the cultural and historical significance of the building to the black community.
"It's important for the mayor to tell the details of the deal because without those details," Williams said, "the motivation might not be clear to people."
The decision has also become a hot topic on social media. But so far Kriseman has declined to comment on the reaction to his decision. His position remains unchanged, a spokesman said.
Wheeler-Bowman, whose district borders the Manhattan Casino at 642 22nd St. S, added the matter to Thursday's City Council agenda so residents can speak out on the issue.
She said Kriseman called her this week to ask her to push it back to the Sept. 7 meeting because City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle won't be able to attend Thursday's meeting. The council must approve the final development agreement between the city and Callaloo.
Last week Baker ripped Kriseman for his decision. On Wednesday his supporters in the black community tried to capitalize on the controversy by holding a news conference outside the Manhattan Casino.
State Rep. Wengay Newton, the St. Petersburg Democrat who has endorsed Baker, said Kriseman was rewarding campaign contributors instead of supporting black entrepreneurs and trying to improve some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
"There should be a war on poverty," Newton said, "not a war on the poor."
Sevell Brown, former president of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter, said Kriseman's decision betrayed a promise the city made long ago to focus on developing black busnesses along 22nd Street S, once known as "The Deuces."
"It's racial insensitivity and nonsense," said Brown, who added that the decision convinced him to support Baker.
But Kriseman supporters defended the mayor's decision, saying he's trying to bring a viable business to a building that has sat empty for the past year. Last summer the city had to evict Sylvia's soul food restaurant from the historic building for falling behind on its rent.
"Most people don't think you should delay making important decisions because elections are coming," said City Council member Karl Nurse, whose district includes the Manhattan Casino.
Callaloo also had the best business proposal by far, Nurse said. He said he encouraged the group to emphasize the building's history, especially the second floor, which is where greats such as Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and others once performed.
"To me, that's the way you make this a win-win," Nurse said.
Last week Kriseman said he urged Callaloo to work with another group, the Manhattan Casino Legacy Collaborative, to put together a plan for the second floor space. The Legacy group submitted one of the three other proposals for the building.
"(Kriseman) strongly encourages conversations and collaboration wherever possible," mayoral spokesman Ben Kirby said in a text message to the Times on Tuesday.
But those talks have gone poorly. Gloria Campbell, who led the Legacy Collaborative effort, said Callaloo's offer for the second-floor space was "absolutely insulting."
Callaloo partner Mario Farias said his group had made a fair and "gracious" offer.
"If this becomes a tug of war," Farias said, "nobody wins."
Another influential pastor who supports Baker, the Rev. Wayne Thompson of First Baptist Institutional, said the issue transcends the mayoral race.
"This shouldn't be about who you support for mayor," he said. "This community has been left out of an integral part of planning for the future of this community. Everybody ought to matter in this city."
But Tampa remains steadfast in his support of Kriseman. He tells everyone they need to put the mayor's decision in perspective: He chose the proposal that he thinks has the best chance of success.
And he adds: "Don't give this election to Baker."