ST. PETERSBURG – Last Thursday at the city council meeting, Mayor Rick Kriseman said his acceptance of the Callaloo Group to lease the Manhattan Casino was the only sustainable choice to occupy the historic building.
“I share everyone’s desire that we see the Manhattan Casino come back to life in a way that truly does honor its past,” said Kriseman, noting that this venture would create up to 20 jobs for the Midtown area.
Since the announcement of the mayor’s decision on Aug. 18, there has been a great uproar in the black community. Many residents are confused as to how a multimillion-dollar facility could only produce 20 jobs.
Opening as an entertainment facility in 1931, the Jordan Dance Hall was named for the African- American entrepreneur and former slave who contracted it, Elder Jordan.
Eventually becoming the Manhattan Casino, it was the place of cultural and social entertainment for African Americans in the segregated St. Pete. When legendary performers such as Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole came to town, the Manhattan was the only venue they were allowed to perform in.
“Why take everything away from us when the black community has given so much,” asked grassroots activist Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter, 61. “They let the interstate come through that destroyed 22nd Street, then they turned around and decided they wanted [the Gas Plant Neighborhood for] the dome. Now you want to take my last legacy? That dog won’t hunt.”
Standing outside of the Manhattan with a small group Tuesday, Aug. 22, four days after the mayor’s announcement, Lassiter stopped any and every one to take a minute and sign her petition.
“This petition is to reject—we want city council to reject the Callaloo Group’s proposal for the Manhattan Casino,” she said.
Lassiter believes the black community shouldn’t have to pay a dime to secure its legacy “when CDBG money has been coming every year for 30 something years. The city gets money every year in the name of black folks and I don’t see anything that they have done.”
CDBG, or Community Development Block Grant, is one of the longest-running programs of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and funds local community development activities such as affordable housing, anti-poverty programs and infrastructure development.
“We done paid enough,” Lassiter remarked.
Helping to collect signatures was Gloria Campbell, president of the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Casino Legacy Collective (MCLC) and former president of the Deuces Live, Inc., a group working to restore the 22nd Street Corridor back to its former glory.
Campbell explained the MCLC formed less than two months ago after she sat down with Mario Farias, a member of the Callaloo Group who informed her that they were putting in a proposal for the Manhattan to open a Cuban Restaurant.
Campbell said she asked him if he’d seen a letter the Deuces Live drafted to the city expressing the importance of honoring the legacy and heritage of the Manhattan when the request for proposal went out last year.
According to Campbell, Farias was not interested in the letter because “this is a done deal.”
To make sure there was a credible competitor, MCLC was formed.
“Now the people that we got, that became part of this group was just absolutely amazing,” said Campbell.
Some of the names connected to the project are journalist and author John Capouya, Arthenia Joyner, attorney and former member of the Florida State Senate, Ted Dorsey, co-owner and chef at The Mill Restaurant, Chuck Egerter, owner of Eagle Datagistics, Paul Wilborn, executive director at the Palladium Theater and many more, totaling 27.
Speaking to the advisory board last Saturday at the Manhattan Casino, Campbell made clear that they were not interested in accepting a comprise to share the space with the Callaloo Group proposed by Pinellas County School Board Member Rene Flowers. A local business owner advised her that neither group would be successful.
MCLC’s proposal included educational events, world-class live entertainment, dancing and programming for the upstairs space. They proposed to have live music three to four nights a week and rent out the hall for private events.
The upstairs will be supported by the six distinct, historically-inspired culinary concepts from downstairs: Hattie B’s Kitchen, a soul food restaurant, Sno-Peak, a take-out and late night café, Champagne’s Piano Bar that will feature live music and craft cocktails, the Hot House, which will serve guest at private banquets, weddings, dinner dances and performances upstairs, Geech’s BBQ and Kookies-N-Kream, an outdoor café facing 22nd Street that will serve coffee and desserts.
Board member Gordon Davis, who is a restaurant entrepreneur and founder of Tampa’s SOHO District, said his main focus would be hiring, training and collaborating with chefs. He said the advisory board of chefs will also consult on recipes, and that he’s in talks with distinguished chefs such as Marcus Samuelsson, owner of the Red Rooster in Harlem and celebrity judge on Top Chef, Iron Chef USA, Iron Chef America and Chopped on the Food Network.
Fred Johnson, deputy director and global arts coordinator at Intersections International came to the area in 1977. He said he’s had the opportunity to benefit from the community and when he travels the world, he talks about how hip St. Pete was.
“That’s an important part of the history of who we are, and it’s right here in St. Petersburg for the whole world to learn about,” Johnson said. “This is not just about a restaurant. This is about a legacy. It’s about history.”
As of Wednesday, Lassiter has collected more than 200 signatures on the petition. She plans to present the petition at the Sept. 7 city council meeting when the Manhattan Casino will be an agenda item.