City’s response to Sylvia’s closing

Race Relations Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin

BY DEPUTY MAYOR KANIKA TOMALIN

The City of St. Petersburg owns the historic Manhattan Casino that operated as Sylvia’s Restaurant, until earlier this summer, under the direction of Larry Newsome. The city invested in preserving this building with an intent to always see it operate in a way that reflects its rich history and contributions to the corridor on which it sits. The ownership and management group of Sylvia’s is attributing the restaurant’s failure to the city. The city did not close Sylvia’s.

Sylvia’s lack of viability closed it. Like any restaurant that is unable to cover the costs of its business and turn a profit through the delivery of a product and service that is in demand, Sylvia’s found itself in crisis. Unable to pay rent, unable or unwilling to comply with other conditions of the lease, reportedly unable to meet other obligations such as franchise agreements, the restaurant no longer operates.

This is not the fault of or responsibility of the city. However, the city extended extenuating concessions in an effort to help it succeed.

Unlike any restaurant, Sylvia’s was a special venture, a symbol of resurgence on the 22nd Street Corridor. No one wanted to see it succeed more than Mayor Rick Kriseman and his team. In keeping, the mayor directed the city’s real estate department to suspend its usual practices of termination of a lease agreement while we worked hard to find a solution.

He recommended to council that we extend unusual grace to the management group while they worked hard to restructure in a way that would make it work. He met time and again with the ownership group offering assistance and asking for a viable plan that would illustrate a change in performance that would serve not to kick the can down the road, but turn the restaurant around.

The only plan that was ever produced was a request for the city to not collect rent and further obligate itself to millions of dollars in federal debt for an enterprise that was suffering and on a trajectory to close. To take on such obligation would not good be stewardship. It is not a responsible governance strategy and is not a risk the mayor was willing to take on behalf of the people he serves.

The mayor’s interest in the Historic Manhattan Casino site is simple: to see it thrive in a way that reflects its rich history and contributions to the corridor. Even with years of support from the city, Sylvia’s proved unable to make this happen.

The city is moving forward to fill the space with an entity that can be successful and truly serve the people of St. Petersburg and the residents of Midtown with service, product and jobs that will make a sustainable difference. An RFP will solicit interest and an impartial selection process will determine the next business to occupy the space. As was the case with Sylvia’s, the city will do everything within a responsible scope to support its success and we encourage every resident of St. Petersburg and our surrounding area to do the same with your patronage.

Success on 22nd Street is success for all of us. We will most effectively and efficiently reach our goals for resurgence of our beloved corridor together.

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