Racial and economic equity issues bumped up against business strategies as St. Petersburg City Council members debated a new plan for The Historic Manhattan Casino.
While some City Council members were encouraged by a reimagined space and business concept, others were concerned that the plan doesn’t adequately protect the interests of Black residents of the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area.
The Historic Manhattan Casino, known for its contributions to arts and culture in the Black community, is one of several city-owned properties in south St. Petersburg where development projects are ongoing. They are intended to bring jobs to an economically challenged part of the city, while also honoring the legacy of the community.
Council members voted five to three on Thursday to approve an amended lease with The Callaloo Group, which will establish a food hall with several restaurant concepts that will replace the table-waited restaurant that has occupied the main dining hall at the Manhattan Casino. Rising Tide Innovation Center, which operates a coworking space in downtown St. Petersburg, will open a small business center and coworking space at the Manhattan Casino.
All the City Council members who spoke said they liked the idea, but those who voted against the amended lease said more needed to be done to ensure the food hall include restaurants operated by CRA residents and that the coworking space be affordable for CRA residents.
“I don’t want downtown to come to the Manhattan Casino,” said Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman. She asked that the amended lease include guarantees to protect community interests.
The goal is to accommodate CRA entrepreneurs and the first filter is finding people from the community, said Vincent Jackson, former NFL wide receiver and a partner in the Callaloo Group. But Callaloo Group also is a for-profit businesses and has to be able to pay its own expenses, he said.
“What if we don’t have any CRA vendors that knock on our door who can be profitable or who don’t have a good business plan?” Jackson said. “To hold us to the meter of saying that we have to have our vendors from there, that’s difficult because what if it doesn’t help us pay our rent?”
Fledging businesses can hone their entrepreneurial skills first in an incubator at the Manhattan Casino, before graduating to the food hall and eventually moving on to their own brick and mortar operations, said Leigh Fletcher, Rising Tide co-owner.
“Our focus and our mission statement is to serve the CRA and low-income entrepreneurs. I don’t want to put someone in the food hall who fails, because they’re not ready to be in the food hall. And I also want the food hall to stay busy all the time, because if we went dark, people would say why would I go to the Manhattan Casino if there’s no food to eat there,” Fletcher said. “So I want to make sure that our structure is flexible enough so that we can bring in good food from entrepreneurs who are ready to deliver that food and become the restaurants of the future throughout St. Petersburg.”
Wheeler-Bowman, whose district includes the Manhattan Casino, did not get the written guarantees for CRA resident participation that she asked for in the lease. Alan DeLisle, the city’s development administrator, said he would come back to the City Council with a broader plan for entrepreneurship for the several ongoing projects in the area.
Last fall, Callaloo Group realized the existing use was not meeting expectations, Jackson told Council members.
“When businesses are faced with challenges, especially in the restaurant businesses, we have to make decisions. We have to decide if we are going to turn the keys over or fight the tide and reposition. What we’ve done is reposition,” Jackson said.
Key elements of the newly revamped space will include:
• A coffee shop and bakery at the spot that was occupied by Pipo’s To Go and featuring Deuces Coffee, to honor the history of the African American community
• Callaloo Bar and Bites, a cocktail lounge with “Floribbean flair”
• A food hall with a wide array of food choices in the main dining room. There are three candidates right now: Better Way Barbecue, Three Generations Catering and Heavenly Hands Desserts.
• Calle 22, a South Florida street food concept
• Coworking space, based on the Rising Tide Innovation Center model. Prices will range from $65 to $100 a month, with discounts, scholarships and other options available for businesses that need financial help.
• A commissary kitchen, based on a shared kitchen model, that can be used by food hall operators and other food-based businesses
• A not-for-profit incubator focusing on entrepreneurship training for CRA residents, minorities and low-income entrepreneurs
There’s also an advisory council, led by Pastor Gregg Murray of Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church, that will focus on making sure the project is tied to community goals.
There were a lot of commitments to CRA employment made in the original proposal that were not upheld, but it wasn’t for lack of trying, said Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders. She was involved with the original Callaloo plan prior to being elected to the city council, and said the issue is personal for her.
“I want this to be successful and with this venture I know it will be. However I want to make sure that our community feels that bond. I want to make sure our community feels that commitment. I want to make sure our community feels a part of it,” she said.
City Council member Amy Foster also said she wanted to ensure the history of the area was not being overlooked.
“More and more it feels like the African American history of the Deuces is being overtaken by the arts community, the LGBT community, of which I myself am I part,” Foster said.
Foster also said the food hall plan was similar to a proposal from a competing group in 2017, when Mayor Rick Kriseman awarded the lease to Callaloo Group.
Other council members said they appreciated the Callaloo Group’s business plan pivot.
“This is a difficult time for any business. This is an outside-the-box approach to helping a business. It’s innovative and I think that’s exactly what we need at this time,” said Ed Montanari, City Council chair. “We need innovative approaches to keep our businesses healthy and afloat as we try to get through this pandemic and move forward.”
The capital improvements that Callaloo Group is making, in addition to the partnership with Rising Tide, are all positive factors, said Council member Robert Blackmon.
“Coworking spaces and food are where it’s going to be at in terms of commercial real estate,” Blackmon said. “Those are going to be two strong suits moving forward.”
City Council vice chair Gina Driscoll said the plan to train entrepreneurs and operate restaurants on a rotating basis in the food hall reminded her of the Marketplace at the newly opened St. Pete Pier.
“It never gets tired, it’s always interesting and if you go to the Pier every month, you always find something new at the Marketplace,” Driscoll said.
Until other south St. Petersburg projects come to fruition, the Manhattan Casino needs to have a broad appeal, said Council member Darden Rice.
“Until we see Commerce Park and the Deuces and the Warehouse Arts District, all of those different plans come together, the Manhattan is going to be destination retail. As long as it is destination retail, it has to have the common touch. I know we don’t want downtown prices but in order to succeed, it’s got to attract everybody,” Rice said.
Rice, Blackmon, Driscoll, Figgs-Sanders and Montanari voted for the amended lease, while Wheeler-Bowman, Foster and Council member Brandi Gabbard voted against it.