The Urban Collective team has stepped into the role of managing partners of the storied yet challenged Manhattan Casino. L-R, Jabaar Edmond, LaShante Keys, Trevor Mallory, Jason Bryant, Dan Soronen; (seated) Tamisha Darling-Roberson and Ella K. Coffee
BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG — Sitting with the Urban Collective team, it becomes quickly apparent that for the group, stepping into the role of managing partners of the storied yet challenged Manhattan Casino is about legacy, history, and love for the St. Pete community.
The seven members met while attending a weekly political think tank on community issues. That community-mindedness comes with deep ties: more than half of the team are St. Pete born and bred. And with six out of seven Black members, there is a strong sense of identification with the community members surrounding the Casino and Food Hall.
“I was born and raised in St Petersburg, right here on the south side, so I grew up hearing my grandparents and parents talking about how this was the place to be,” shared real estate professional Tamisha Darling-Roberson.
Thriving regardless of St. Pete’s then-segregated environment, Darling-Roberson said her elders would “get all dressed up and come here, and you would have some of the greats playing.” Hearing the pride of her elders and the impact of the Manhattan Casino motivated her to want to help bring back that “brightness, that light within the community.”
Jason Bryant, a business development professional and founder of New Era Thinking, is also a native. “I care about and love my city. I already knew about the history around the Manhattan Casino, and I’ve always had an interest in this building.” He said that it was an opportunity for him to pursue his interest and “jump in and be able to do something that made sense.”
Bryant said that when think tank members started a group text about 22 South closing, the seven members decided to act quickly. Although most of the group lacked a restaurant background, with fellow thinktank-member Dan Soronen on board, Bryant said, “We felt a little more comfortable.”
Saronen has been living in south St Petersburg since 1996. A restaurant and bar-owner around the city since 2005, he said the business climate was what got him more involved with politics.
“Mainly because of limitations that were being put on small business owners by the administration, there was a lot of red tape, getting through the building department, zoning, and different licensing issues. I felt like it was stifling the growth of different parts of the city.”
He pointed to Ninth, 16th, and 22nd Streets as an example of how challenged small businesses are in the city, noting the absence of businesses on these corridors on the south side. “There’s a huge difference between the number of businesses here, then if we went over the same corridors heading north of Central Avenue.”
St. Pete native LaShante Keys has spent his career “having tough conversations” from working with the City of Clearwater doing EEOC investigations to having end-of-life conversations in the African-American community. With several entrepreneurial businesses as well, Keys said, “When this opportunity came up, I jumped on it. It’s a great opportunity.”
Keys said he didn’t know any of the other partners but trusted Saronen’s and Trevor Mallory’s vision. “They had a vision of what they wanted to accomplish. And once I understood the vision and understood what they had in mind, I was ready to get on board.”
Mallory, president of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida and active in St. Pete politics, was also part of a prior group that had unsuccessfully bid on the Manhattan Casino project before the prior restaurant, Callaloo and Pepos, took over.
“We knew that with the history of this building, and where it comes from, and the history of St. Pete, the space needed to be in hands that look like this community.” Mallory said that when this opportunity came across the table again, grabbing it was a “no-brainer.”
“It’s going to be big for us because our parents and our grandparents have stories about this building, we heard the history from in-house. So, we have the education to make sure we live up to what this building actually represents,” he acknowledged.
Mallory feels the group has several things going for them: they’re a largely Black, local ownership team, they’re aware that “pricing is the key to make it accessible to this community,” and with all their connections, promoting the space should be easier.
Partner Ella K. Coffee, a political consultant working with Senator Darryl Rouson, said the Jordan Dance Hall actually got her excited about being a restaurant owner. “I’ve never been in the restaurant business, but this building was the big draw for me.”
Coffee said the group would be putting on events to bring the community out, including a reggae night and a grown and sexy R& B party. She mused that as long as they weren’t losing money, they’d be succeeding because “we’re embracing the community and trying to make the community brighter.”
The space will be open for the community to book events such as weddings, birthday parties, and organizational events. They all agreed that “community prices” would assure that neighborhood residents were not “priced out” of the restaurant and hall, as in times past.
It’s clear from listening to the Urban Collective team that they didn’t get into the business to make money. Instead, with their ancestors looking over their shoulders and a community they want to embrace and encourage, the 22 South Food Hall holds an almost spiritual importance to the group.
The team’s seventh member, well-known community activist, filmmaker, and vice-president of CDAT Jabaar Edmond, added, “I feel honored to be a part of the team. What Urban Collective brings to the table is community, community relationships. This space is a community asset and a beacon for our community. It’s important that the community knows that it’s our place. It’s ours.”
Edmond noted that that responsibility is one that both the Urban Collective and the community should take seriously. “As a community, we have to come in, shop, support, and book our events. Because this is the chance of a lifetime — for a community asset to be in the hands of community members.”
22 South Food Hall is located at the Historic Manhattan Casino, 642 22nd St. S, St. Petersburg. The restaurant will have its grand opening event on Friday, Oct. 1, from 5-10 p.m.