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Sylvia's in Midtown St. Petersburg struggles to avoid eviction

Published Dec. 17, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Hopes were high when Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food opened its doors just over two years ago.

Not just among soul food aficionados whose mouths watered at the menu studded with go-to classics like chicken livers, smothered chicken, ribs, okra and collard greens.

City officials banked on the restaurant anchoring a Midtown renaissance, breathing energy into St. Petersburg's poorest neighborhoods.

By year's end, that dream will be on life support.

City attorneys are preparing legal action to evict Larry Newsome, who runs Urban Development Solutions, the nonprofit that leased the ground floor of the city-owned Manhattan Casino for the restaurant.

The reason? The nonprofit owes $60,264 in back rent, late fees and property taxes.

If the tab isn't paid in full, eviction proceedings will begin on Dec. 29, attorneys told City Council members this month.

The city poured in about $3 million to renovate the historic building at 642 22nd St. S with the idea that the investment would pay off. Initially, it did. Long lines of eager diners crowded the restaurant in the first few months, ringing up $122,708 in sales after it opened in November 2013 and $90,462 the following month.

The lease agreement called for Sylvia's to share 5 percent of monthly sales above $83,000 and taxpayers collected more than $2,000 early on.

But the city hasn't received any such payments since very early in 2014, said Bruce Grimes, the city's real estate director.

And UDS hasn't paid anything to the city since July, he said.

Over the last two years, crowds have dissipated and business slowed. Earlier this week, at the tail end of a lunch hour, a Christmas tree by the entrance lit a nearly empty room. Only a single table was occupied.

"We haven't generated as much business as we would like," Newsome said.

Newsome says he has a plan to turn things around. He said he's been working on a plan to revive the restaurant with the flagship Sylvia's in New York and local investors that involves an revamped menu, a new chef, general manager and a brand-new "robust" marketing plan that focuses on television.

"Radio and fliers just haven't worked that well," he said.

If given time, he said, business will improve. He said he was confident that an eviction could be avoided.

"I think we have a really good shot at making this work," Newsome said.

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said the city wants Sylvia's to succeed, but it has to also protect its investment.

City officials understand the challenges of opening a restaurant in a developing area and competing with stiff culinary competition, she said.

"Our first desire and commitment is to see success, but we also have be good stewards of the asset," she said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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