ST. PETERSBURG— Mayor Rick Kriseman has chosen a controversial restaurant concept to occupy the Manhattan Casino, saying he made a decision 11 days before the mayoral primary because he didn't want politics to get in the way of progress in struggling Midtown.
"I could have sat on it and waited until after the campaign," the mayor said at Friday's news conference announcing his choice. "The only reason not to make a decision was for political reasons and I didn't want to do that."
Kriseman chose the Callaloo Group, which wants to open a "Floribbean" restaurant fusing Caribbean and Southern cuisine at 642 22nd St. S, It is a space that has struggled to maintain a viable restaurant. Last year the city evicted Sylvia's, a soul food venture, after it fell behind on its rent.
The Floribbean option has been criticized by his opponent, former Mayor Rick Baker, saying it wasn't a good fit for the predominantly African-American community. Both candidates have campaigned heavily for the black vote leading up to the Aug. 29 primary.
Kriseman said he chose the Callaloo Group's concept over three other proposals because of its track record in the restaurant industry: the group is backed by Ramon Hernandez, who operates the successful Pipo's Cuban restaurants. The city has to finalize a development agreement with Callaloo and City Council has to approve it.
To spark progress in Midtown, the mayor said, the city must "stop turning to those who offer quick fixes, have little experience or insufficient capital."
Callaloo's proposal includes plans to open a commissary to supply Pipo's restaurants and supplement its catering business. The group also promises to train local residents in the culinary arts and give them the chance to advance in the company.
The Manhattan Casino sits on 22nd Street S, known a century ago as "The Deuces" when the corridor was the center of black life. The city spent $2.8 million to renovate and reopen it in 2011.
Hernandez said the ownership group plans to hire up to 25 workers to operate the commercial kitchen. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, a partner in the group, said Callaloo is up to the challenge of reviving the iconic building.
"Being the first guy on the block down here is not intimidating to us," Jackson said.
But some Midtown residents have criticized the Callaloo Group's plan, saying outside interests were speeding up the gentrification of the area. Jackson said he and his partners will listen to the community's concerns.
"We're very open, we're very flexible," he said. "So we want the input. We want people to come down here. Not only to enjoy a good meal, but we want you to be a part of our team, our vision."
As Jackson spoke, mayoral candidate and longtime activist Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter sat a few feet away, holding a handmade sign: "No! No! This belongs to the black community!"
Baker issued a statement saying the mayor's choice ignored the wishes of many African American residents.
"After four years of ignoring the Midtown community while we went backwards and lost assets, Rick Kriseman decides eleven days before he has to face voters to put a Cuban restaurant at the historic Manhattan Casino," Baker said. "His disregard for the community could not be more apparent."
Community activist Jabbar Edmonds, who supported a rival proposal, said bringing in a Cuban restaurant was a clear sign of gentrification.
"They've taken away everything north of the interstate from the black community control," he said.
But a past critic of the Floribbean concept, Pastor Manuel Sykes, said he warmed to the idea after he said the Callaloo Group told him they would help a local food truck find restaurant space.
"That was enough to quell my concerns," Sykes said. "I think the community needs to understand that they are not the tip of the spear of gentrification that we've seen from this administration."
Kriseman said he encouraged another bidder, the Manhattan Casino Legacy Collaborative, to work with Callaloo, but the two groups couldn't work out a deal.
The Legacy Collaborative proposed letting a non-profit operate the club and sustain itself by offering up to six food options, including a soul food restaurant. The group had the backing of prominent Midtown residents, but would-be executive director Fred Johnson said they lacked Callaloo's cash.
"It's a great disappointment," Johnson said. His group planned to celebrate the importance of the Manhattan Casino as a landmark of resistance to segregation and a cultural touchstone.
"It was articulated to us that there was a concern we didn't have the dollars in hand to make it happen," Johnson said.
He said the two groups couldn't find a way to share the building.
"What we choose to do can't be done in any other building," he said. "What Callaloo wants to do could be done in another building.
"To put a commercial entity in there erases a fiber of the soul of South St. Petersburg."