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Callaloo Group hits some goals, falls short on others in first year of operation of Manhattan Casino

Margie Manning

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The Historic Manhattan Casino will become home to a food hall.

Callaloo Group LLC, the business that leases the Manhattan Casino in south St. Petersburg, is on track with rent payments but has yet to meet the employment targets established in its agreement with the city.

The Manhattan Casino, on 22nd Street South in what was once a thriving main street in the city’s African American community, is a high-profile public-private partnership that highlights issues about economic and cultural inclusivity.

The city awarded a five-year lease to Callaloo Group in late 2017 to operate a restaurant, event space and performing music venue at the landmark building.

Former NFL star Vincent Jackson, vice president at Callaloo Group, addressing the St. Petersburg City Council

City council members who heard a progress report Thursday morning said they would be keeping a close eye on how the Callaloo Group was adhering to terms of its agreement. Former NFL star Vincent Jackson, Callaloo vice president, said the market is challenging, but the group continues to improve and adapt.

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin called the entrepreneurs in the group “pioneers” who are looking far into the future.

“We’re very impressed with what they’ve accomplished in one year,” said Alan DeLisle, city development administrator. “Almost all of the requirements have been adhered to … It’s not just the money, are we making a profit or not. We put a lot in there and most operators would probably pass in these situations, but these folks did not.”

Overall, the first year of operations has gone well, Ramon Hernandez, president of Callaloo, told City Council members Thursday.

Between March 18, 2018 and Feb. 19, 2019, the group posted gross sales of $673,769 and paid $50,000 in rent, a report presented to the council said. The rent has been paid as required by  the contract, DeLisle said.

The business had 16 employees as of Nov. 30, short of the 25 full-time workers called for in the agreement.  However, 46 percent of its employees, or seven workers, live in the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, nearly twice the percentage of CRA residents the agreement specified.

The deal with the city also required Callaloo undertake an employee development program that would lead to at least four workers who live in the CRA being offered an ownership stake within five years. That’s a goal in progress.

“Two prospects in training for future ownership stakes were dismissed for improper behavior. Tenant indicates that it will work for find additional  candidates for these opportunities,” the report to the council said.

Council member Steve Kornell said he understands circumstances happen, but he will be keeping a close eye on that provision.

“I don’t want to hear in Year Five any reason why there’s not ownership for some members of the CRA community as is in the contract,” Kornell said.

For council members Lisa Wheeler-Bowen and Darden Rice, a key focus is preserving the musical and cultural legacy of the Manhattan Casino, which hosted some of the country’s greatest blues singers during segregation.

The Manhattan remains one of the premier music venues in St. Petersburg, Jackson said.

But the Manhattan is a “destination location,” that doesn’t draw the foot traffic of businesses on Central Avenue or in the Edge District, he said.

“There’s been talk before about development happening around us, which is still underway,” Jackson said. “Getting the traffic, getting residential around us and getting commercial space around us, all those things are part of the vision that we had when we put the plan together and fulfilling the five-year proposal, and we still plan to do so.”

The terms outlined in the lease should not be considered “aspirational goals,” said city council member Amy Foster.

“These are promises to the citizens,” she said.

But Callaloo absolutely has invested in aspiration, Tomalin said.

“None of the reality that surrounds them tells them it’s a good investment to be there right now. They’re there because they believe in our vision, they believe in the people and the potential of the people who live in that community,” Tomalin said. “It’s a social enterprise that they hope will catalyze real enterprise that will self-perpetuate for years to come.”

The collective eyes of the community are focused on the South St. Pete CRA, Tomalin said. “Support the businesses, the pioneers, who see far enough into the future to understand what can be,” she said

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Kathleen McDole

    April 5, 2019at5:41 am

    I think this is a great start for the goals of the City and the partners involved. Perhaps partner with one of the hospitality programs in the City’s recreational Dept. And or the school systems culinary programs. These are young adults with the desire to one day own a stake in their own restaurant and or entertainment business.

  2. Avatar

    Gloria Campbell

    April 5, 2019at11:15 am

    The City had another choice for this contract and I was a part of the MCLC team. They chose this vendor because they said had the money, and expertise to make this venture a success. We were told they did not need anything from the City or community to make this venture a destination.

    The constant turnover of staff has been dizzying and menu items are not appealing to the area.

    The is not the right concept for the Manhattan the sooner the City admits that and makes a real effort to put the right concept and people in the Manhattan they will continue to make excuses for their poor choice. I drive pass the Manhattan Casino everyday and it breaks my heart to see an empty building.

    If you invested in the Southside 20 years ago you are a Pioneer that was before the Manhattan was renovated and most of 22nd Street S. was still in shambles. So no I don’t give people credit for having insight and vision after the hard work has been done.

  3. Avatar

    Maya Thomas

    June 18, 2019at3:19 pm

    To the owners of Callaloo, I have some suggestions for you.

  4. Avatar

    Barbara Schnipper

    June 18, 2019at4:27 pm

    A friend and I had a wonderful Cajun-like meal at Callaloo, in conjunction with a visit to the amazing Carter Woodson African-American Museum in that area. We were served outside, which was very special. We don’t live in St. Petersburg, but we visit The Burg almost every weekend for events such as opera, American Stage, the Palladium, the Art Walks, and such.

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