ST. PETERSBURG — Even before Sylvia's could cook its famous food at the Manhattan Casino, the restaurant came under fire at a City Council meeting.
Controversy erupted after staffers asked the council to amend the 50-year lease it approved this summer to bring the Harlem-based restaurant to the Midtown neighborhood.
Despite a lengthy argument, the council voted 5-0 last week to change the lease from a partnership to a license agreement. Instead of being part owner, Sylvia's will train local workers how to cook its recipes.
The move allows Urban Development Solutions, led by Larry Newsome, who developed Tangerine Plaza Shopping Center, to close on tax credits by the end of the month.
Council member Jim Kennedy lambasted staffers and Newsome for seeking changes in the 11th hour.
"If this is the method of doing business, that's scary," he said.
Council member Charlie Gerdes said the group needs time to examine deals since taxpayers expect them to be watchdogs, adding: "We can't check our accountability at the door because we're rooting for something."
The original lease said Sylvia's, "a world-class soul food conglomerate," would form a partnership with Urban Development Solutions. Sylvia's would also train restaurant managers, cooks and staffers, and oversee the financial and operating systems.
The deal is now for eight years and can be renewed for two five-year options.
In addition, Newsome will send employees to New York to learn how to prepare the food. Sylvia's will also send employees to St. Petersburg for two weeks before the restaurant opens.
The agreement, Newsome said, is now structured the way other restaurants establish franchises. Eight years is an "industry standard," he said.
Newsome said he never misled any city staffers and pointed out that they interpreted the documents differently than he did, adding: "There just wasn't a meeting of the minds."
Several council members tried delaying the vote until a special meeting could be held next week. The group became more alarmed when City Attorney John Wolfe said he hadn't examined the deal between Sylvia's and Newsome.
Council member Karl Nurse implored his colleagues to finalize the deal and asked them to envision him begging on his knees.
"This is a very big deal for us," he said. "Please don't blow this for us."
Mayor Bill Foster agreed.
The modified deal is not what he originally wanted, he said. He stressed that the city will not lose money and can get the building back if the business fails.
"There's no risk in doing that," Foster said. "The city is covered."
The council approval came after city attorneys tweaked the agreement to ban another franchise within 75 miles of St. Petersburg.
The original Sylvia's Restaurant is famous for its Southern home cooking. It was established in 1962 in Harlem, N.Y., by Sylvia Woods. She died in July. Her son, Van, attended the meeting Monday with Newsome.
The city spent about $2.8 million on the Manhattan Casino's renovation in 2005. Since then, it has struggled to find a suitable restaurant for the venue.
The two-story building, built in 1925, hosted jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie but closed as a dance hall in 1966.
Applause erupted in Midtown when the council approved the earlier deal as residents expected Sylvia's to anchor the transformation of the neighborhood.
At that time, Foster said this: "I wanted it to be more than just another franchise."
When the restaurant does open, it will be the only Sylvia's franchise in the country.
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.