ST. PETERSBURG — Larry Newsome's plan to reopen Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food restaurant, according to city officials, has one fatal flaw:
The owners of the original Sylvia's in Harlem asked him to stop using the iconic name nearly 18 months ago, according to a letter to the city from an attorney representing the New York City restaurant.
Without the rights to Sylvia's famous name, it would be impossible for Newsome to keep the restaurant open, said Ben Kirby, a spokesman for Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Newsome said Sylvia's executives were working with him until the restaurant was foreclosed on in June, but he may still try to reopen it under another name.
"We might be better off with a fresh start," Newsome said.
The city's revelation, however, did not keep Newsome from accusing city officials of treating him unfairly at a Tuesday evening meeting at Greater Mount Zion AME Church.
The Rev. Manuel Sykes organized the meeting to ask Midtown residents to engage in "civil disobedience" to protest what he calls a systematic effort by the Kriseman administration to gentrify and displace black residents.
Sykes criticized grants that the city recently handed out from its new South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, established last year to boost local businesses. More than a third of the grants — about $319,000 total — went to rising neighborhoods like Historic Kenwood and Grand Central instead of struggling areas such as Childs Park and Midtown, which are predominantly black and poor.
He also cited the awarding development rights to the Commerce Park site on 22nd Street S to a high-end motorcycle dealership and a marina supply business as evidence of a coordinated effort to gentrify black neighborhoods.
Sykes reserved his greatest scorn for the city's treatment of Newsome.
"No black person is going to do anything substantive on 22nd St. That's the message," Syke said at the Mt. Zion meeting, attended by about a dozen people. "It's racist. It's gentrification. It's gangster dealing."
City official Kenny Irby attended the meeting but left early. As of Wednesday evening, Kirby said the mayor had not yet been briefed on Sykes' comments.
The mayor did not respond to a request for comment. However, regarding Newsome's complaints, Kirby texted this response to the Tampa Bay Times:
We "believe the Sylvia's story speaks for itself."
Earlier this month, the City Council voted to spend $2.2 million to protect the city's investment in another Newsome property, Tangerine Plaza, also on 22nd Street S. The city is expected to be the sole owner of the plaza after a foreclosure auction.
Newsome was asked to stop using Sylvia's name in March 2015 because he hadn't complied with the license agreement, according to a letter sent to the city on Monday from Sylvia Woods Inc.'s attorney John Gotaskie Jr.
The judge has awarded the city possession of the restaurant in the historic Manhattan Casino in June. Newsome has continued to fight the decision in court.
The city moved to take over Sylvia's after Newsome fell far behind on his rent.
The city's new CRA is the subject of another dispute: the $170,000 — the biggest grant handed out this year — that went to went to Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy to renovate the historic Merriwether Building, 951 22nd St. S. The money will go out next year.
On three separate grant applications, the Brayboys checked no to a question asking if there were any pending judgements against them. In fact, they were involved in a federal lawsuit with a former chef at their popular 22nd Street S restaurant, Chief's Creole Cafe, over unpaid overtime and wages. The suit was settled Monday.
Elihu Brayboy said a family trust applied for the grants. The lawsuit involved another business entity, Elihu LLC.
"Absolutely not," Elihu Brayboy said when asked if he should have disclosed the lawsuit to the city. "The two entities have nothing to do with one another."
Dave Goodwin, the city's director of planning and economic development, said officials weren't aware of the lawsuit when it awarded the grant. Since the money won't be spent until next year, he said, the city would review the matter.
The City Council is set to discuss the CRA grant program on Thursday.