ST. PETERSBURG — While Midtown residents wait for a new grocery store in Tangerine Plaza, the private developer refuses to talk about his efforts to fill the space built partially with tax dollars.
"I don't have anything to say," said Larry Newsome, head of Urban Development Solutions.
Mayor Bill Foster said Newsome and Sweetbay are committed to finding another grocer to take over the vacancy created when Sweetbay closed 33 stores in February.
Foster has been briefed several times but said he cannot share the information because the city is not a part of the private negotiations. Sweetbay will continue to pay rent until the space is filled, he said.
"You have a motivated tenant and landlord," the mayor said.
Newsome, however, is talking in Fort Myers.
He is working to open a Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food Restaurant in McCollum Hall, a former dance hall that once hosted music legends like Duke Ellington.
It's the same Harlem-based restaurant that Newsome is trying to open in St. Petersburg's Manhattan Casino, which taxpayers spent $2.8 million to refurbish in 2005. Newsome plans to hold a ceremony to kick off the project in late May.
In late March, Newsome went on the defensive with the Fort Myers Community Redevelopment Agency after the Tampa Bay Times detailed his personal financial troubles.
The Jan. 31 story reported that Newsome faced several million dollars in foreclosures, court judgments and tax liens since 2010.
"The article contains many inaccuracies and is skewed to convey a barely hidden agenda," Newsome wrote on March 27. "The Times has been on a mission of late to discredit the mayor of St. Petersburg and city staff."
Taxpayers, the story said, invested more than $7 million to redevelop Tangerine Plaza and the surrounding area. Newsome disputed that figure to Fort Myers officials, saying the investment was more like $2 million.
The Times obtained its information from city officials during a January news conference to denounce the store closing. Rick Mussett, senior administrator for city development, confirmed the $7 million days later.
Newsome attributed his financial troubles to the real estate crash and said "it would be nice" if reporters wrote positive stories about him.
"However, when they do say bad things about you, most of which are untrue, you have to stand up and tell everyone what the facts are and let them decide for themselves," Newsome wrote.
When asked again last week whether the $7 million was erroneous, Mussett said: "The story is accurate."
The Fort Myers News-Press contributed records to this report. Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @markpuente.