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Community Voices: Reconsidering the future of the Manhattan Casino

Chuck Egerter

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Manhattan Casino house band, date unknown: From left: Fess Clark, Al Williams, George Brown, Warren Rainey and Leroy Barton. St. Petersbug Museum of History, from the Al William Collection

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The Manhattan Casino Legacy Collaborative is a community-focused Florida Non-Profit Corporation committed to returning the Manhattan Casino to its former glory as the African American community’s cultural center for local, national and international guests. 

There is a debate, one that I have been passionately involved with. While I was President of the Deuces Live Mainstreet, the City paid about a half million dollars (about four years ago) to develop a master plan for both the Deuces and the Warehouse Arts District. Both WADA and the Deuces, as well as the community at large, participated in developing that plan. For it to work, it needs the Manhattan Casino to play a foundational role in the economic revitalization of 22nd St S., built around its cultural legacy.

Yet the city gave a ridiculously inexpensive lease to the Callaloo group one year later (2017) even though its mission was not consistent with the City’s own master pan. The city passed on a strong proposal by the Manhattan Casino Legacy Collaborative (MCLC), a nonprofit formed with the sole purpose of making the Manhattan Casino live up to its cultural potential with musical and artistic programming built around the performers, stories and surrounding restaurants of its past.

That was an ill-advised mistake that has played out over the last two years, as evidenced by the lack of progress and/or success in the Manhattan Casino.

If we are doing anything other than pursuing a legacy and culture based mission that embraces and builds on the legend of its past, we are not only ignoring the City’s half million dollar master plan, but we are kidding ourselves about the Manhattan Casino’s ability to spark economic revitalization throughout the Deuces.  The Manhattan Casino can and should become the cornerstone of African American music and culture, leading to the economic revitalization of the Deuces. The Deuces can leverage this version of the Manhattan to become a regional draw while creating needed jobs for so many in the area that have struggled for so long. There were more than 100 African American owned businesses along 22nd Street between 5th Ave S and 15th Ave S in the early ’60s. Recreating a version of that is the highest calling for the Deuces and for St. Petersburg.

Callaloo’s business model started with a four-page unsolicited proposal for a Floribbean restaurant and event space. It had no mention of culture events and programming, other than to possibly exhibit art from one of the original Florida Highwaymen. When the members of the MCLC saw that this proposal was close to being accepted by the City, it scrambled to put a proposal together of its own to address the critical missing elements. This competition caused Callaloo to submit a revised proposal, with newly added members and plans that addressed some of the cultural pieces. The city helped facilitate this and awarded the lease to Callaloo, against strong community opposition.

In the end, to the City’s credit, the lease Callaloo signed in November of 2017 had many cultural and community requirements. Requirements that would not have been in the lease without the competition. However, those requirements have not been met, and this was well before Covid-19.

Nothing that Callaloo has done has helped the community, even with an extremely inexpensive lease: $3,500/mo for over 15,000 sq ft. That’s less than $3/ft.

So why last week, after clear business failure and violation of the existing lease provisions, would the City propose to Council (and Council approve) an amendment to the lease that keeps the same people involved and cuts them even more slack? The city has made the same mistake working with some of the same people across the street at the other eyesore on the block, Commerce Park.

As a community, and as a city, should we just admit that we really don’t care about the Deuces or the cultural legacy it offers to our future? Or are we finally ready to do the right thing?

It’s a good debate, one that I can’t believe we are even having.

While it’s easy to throw rocks, it doesn’t solve the problem. If version 2 of Callaloo doesn’t honor the terms of the original lease, what have we gained?

But … when the time is right, and the City is finally ready, we still have a great and growing team that is ready to make a difference for the right reasons.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    August 21, 2020at6:41 pm

    Thank you chuck Egerter. We told them we would not support the Callaloo deal and they did not believe us. We told them we would not support Sylvia’s and they did not believe us. Well, keep ignoring us and losing money because we will not support the new Callaloo plan either. Just watch us.

    • Chuck Egerter

      Chuck Egerter

      August 24, 2020at8:14 am

      Thank you Rose. We will get there.
      As a community bound together for a common cause that will lift up EVERYONE.
      Keep letting your voice be heard!

  2. Avatar

    Gloria Campbell

    August 22, 2020at8:54 am

    Great article and a great read on the Dueces and City. Let’s do the right thing in the era of reconciliation and social justice. Thanks Chuck

    • Chuck Egerter

      Chuck Egerter

      August 24, 2020at8:12 am

      Thanks for reading and chiming in Gloria. You are on the front lines of 22nd Street with so many other business owners that have seen too many unfulfilled promises. Don’t lose faith, we need you!

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