ST. PETERSBURG — Considered a linchpin to the redevelopment of the city's historic African-American commercial strip, the Manhattan Casino was expected to lure several prospective tenants when proposals to lease the two-story building arrived Tuesday.
Instead, only developer Larry Newsome bid on it, causing some to wonder if the city should delay the project once more.
"I would have liked to have seen more than one," said council member Wengay Newton, who represents the district where the casino is located. "Otherwise, how does the city know if this is fair?"
The Manhattan represents much more than the refurbished banquet hall that occupies its second floor, and the unfinished area that makes up its first floor. Built in 1925 along 22nd Street South, the casino stands as a symbol to the city's segregated past and the emotional connection many residents have with it.
Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fats Domino and Nat King Cole all played there before it closed as a dance hall in 1966.
Thirty years later, two nights of disturbances in the surrounding area highlighted the lack of economic opportunities in the community.
The city responded with more than $100 million worth of projects — the Pinellas Job Corps facility, Perkins Elementary School, renovations to Mercy Hospital — and renamed the area Midtown.
The Manhattan Casino also was part of the revitalization, as the city spent $1.4 million rehabbing it by 2005.
It has sat vacant ever since. Its future became a big issue during the 2009 mayor's race. Mayor Bill Foster vowed he would make getting it occupied a top priority.
In May, Foster put the project out for bid. He said he would have preferred getting others to compete, but said he respects Newsome.
Newsome won accolades from city officials for developing a nearby shopping plaza in 2005 for Midtown's first grocery store, Sweetbay Supermarket.
With the Manhattan, Newsome wants to lease the first floor to a company that operates a soul food restaurant in Harlem, New York. The community will be allowed to lease the second floor for events.
Newsome proposes to buy the Manhattan Casino from the city for $2.25 million. He'll spend about $250,000 in renovations.
But he's asking that the money for the acquisition be provided by the city through a 10-year loan. If sales don't reach certain levels, Newsome is asking that the city forgive some interest payments.
He said a second option would be to lease the two-story building for 25 years, but said buying the property outright was preferred.
Foster said the Manhattan is not for sale.
"It's a historical asset," Foster said. "It's the people's asset, and it belongs to the people of St. Petersburg."
His staff will review Newsome's bid to see if it complies with the intent of the project. If it does, he will recommend it for City Council approval.
But waiting could be the best decision, said council member Karl Nurse, because of potential developments that may be announced soon. He refused to elaborate.
"My first reaction is, I don't think this one works," Nurse said.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8037.