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Restaurant deal feeds hope for renewal in St. Petersburg's Midtown

ST. PETERSBURG — The Deuces Live and Warehouse Arts District have been buzzing since Mayor Bill Foster's announcement Friday to bring a Harlem, N.Y.-based restaurant to the historic Manhattan Casino.

As word spread that Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food Restaurant is likely coming to Midtown, a hopeful group of elected officials, artists and business owners pointed to other signs that the pending deal signals a turnaround for the 22nd Street corridor that has been dormant for years.

"There are signs of a rebirth of the neighborhood, and the Manhattan and St. Pete College are the two high-profile positive indicators," said City Council member Karl Nurse, whose district includes the venue at 642 22nd St. S.

St. Petersburg College is establishing a 45,000-square-foot building at 22nd Street and 13th Avenue S to house the college's Midtown Educational Center.

"What I'm excited about is that the college breaks ground in October," said Nurse.

But Nurse also hinted that there's a lot more in store. "There are several artists coming to the area," he said. "There are also manufacturers that the city is talking to that could be there. If we get them all, that could account for several hundred jobs."

Nurse views the additions as key renewal engines.

"The thing is, something like this could kick-start revitalization," he said, adding that there are 230 vacant lots, 70 boarded up properties and another 70 that are empty (not boarded). "So there's a lot of renovation that can be done that won't drive people out of the neighborhood."

Nurse said the hardest part of selling Midtown is convincing people who have negative assumptions that are wrong. "How do you get them to take a look? Bringing a restaurant like Sylvia's does that."

Others agree with Nurse.

Duncan McClellan, a world famous glass artist who moved his gallery on Emerson Avenue S, knows all too well how Sylvia's could change the dynamics of the neighborhood. He witnessed it firsthand in New York.

From the late 1960s, McClellan had an apartment in New York at W 82nd Street and West End Avenue. He recalls how Sylvia's gospel brunch started the trend of getting people to travel to Harlem. Soon after, businesses followed.

"It made a huge difference of how a neighborhood turned around," said McClellan.

"When you bring a businessman to town, you take them to Bern's (Steak House). Well, Sylvia's can be the same for this area. The whole area could do well just because of that restaurant."

McClellan, since moving to south St. Petersburg, has served as mentor, recruiter and host to countless artists who are considering moving to the newly established Warehouse Arts District.

He's not the only one touting the potential of the area.

Elihu Brayboy, a private real estate investor, recently purchased a building at 951 22nd St. S and is in negotiations to lease the first floor to a restaurant.

"We're very excited about the future of the corridor and are participants of it," he said. "When we purchased our building, none of these other offers were on the table."

The two-story, 10,000-square- foot, historic building is next door to the historic Royal Theater. It will be renovated and should be ready of occupancy in early 2013.

"We have a firm that will occupy the entire first floor," he said. "We are still in the negotiation stage, but we are including in our negotiations that a significant number of employees have to be from this community. We will also encourage employers to hire ex-offenders," said Brayboy.

The Sylvia's restaurant deal in the Manhattan Casino, however, can't go forward without City Council approval.

The proposed agreement is a lease of the city-owned property to Urban Development Solutions, which will operate the restaurant. It goes before City Council on July 26. That 50-year lease agreement limits the city's financial commitment to $300,000 for the project and comes with a requirement for on-site parking to be increased from 53 to 95 spaces.

In addition, UDS would have to pay the city $3,000 a month for the 12,178-square foot building.

Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at sgadsden@tampabay.com and on Twitter at twitter.com/StPeteSandi or at (727) 893-8874.

Restaurant deal feeds hope for renewal in St. Petersburg's Midtown 07/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 17, 2012 6:51pm]

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