ST. PETERSBURG — For city officials, the story is simple: The lease is up at Manhattan’s historic casino, and it’s time to see if there’s anyone else there who can revive it. as a cultural gathering place.
But the young, local, black entrepreneurs who took over the lease say they don’t feel like they’ve had a fair chance to get and keep their job. They say they’re up to it if the city does its part to maintain the place it owns.
Instead, the AC is burned out and the roof leaks, so they can’t book the main room for events. Add in a pandemic and the construction of a road in front of the building, and they say they lost a quarter of a million dollars just keeping the doors open.
They say they are frustrated that Ken Welch, the city’s first black mayor elected earlier this year on a platform to bring equity to St. Petersburg’s minority community, is not working with them.
“Under our first black mayor, how did the historic casino not thrive and survive?” said Trevor Mallory, one of the members of the Urban Collective operating group and chairman of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida.
Welch said he was looking to make it happen. He said he was not involved in Urban Collective’s takeover of the casino’s operations or in crafting the lease terms. He said its Nov. 30 expiry provides an opportunity to consider other options.
“If you want to create intentional access for minority businesses, it has to be built from the ground up,” he said. “This was not the case.
“But they signed the contract that existed.”
Who is the Urban Collective?
The Manhattan Casino on S. 22nd Street opened in 1925 and was the heart of the Deuces, a segregated-era black entertainment and business district, with performers ranging from Louis Armstrong to James Brown .
The casino closed in 1968 and sat idle until the city bought the building in 2002 and reopened it in 2011. But a succession of businesses failed to establish a foothold there.
In the summer of 2021, a group that met regularly in downtown St. Petersburg to discuss local politics learned that once again the Manhattan Casino was in trouble. The 22 South Food Hall, the concept that replaced the Callaloo restaurant, was closing. One of the investors, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Vincent Jackson, had passed away and his confidence was unwilling to move forward.
It was the third failed venture into casino ownership since Sylvia’s restaurant opened in 2013 and closed three years later, evicted for failing to pay rent.
Seven people: Trevor Mallory, Jabaar Edmond, Tamisha Darling-Roberson, Dan Soronen, LaShante Keys, Jason Bryant and Ella Coffee formed the Collectif Urbain and took over the lease from promoter Mario Farias.
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The new investors, Farias and even the city agree that the lease with the city is not a good deal. It puts the rent, operation and maintenance costs on the tenant. Additionally, the new group inherited Farias’ unpaid rent obligations. And with no foot traffic or surrounding restaurants or businesses, they knew it would be difficult to pay back what was owed to them.
Members of the Urban Collective, however, said they didn’t realize the air conditioning unit in the upstairs ballroom, the casino’s revenue stream that brings in 85% of revenue, was 17 years old. and was out of breath. Running a broken unit drove up the energy bill, which increased costs. And when it rains, the roof leaks water and creates puddles in the middle of the ballroom.
“We took on this debt with our hearts by saving something we want in our community,” Mallory told City Council in March. “We all went into this ordeal understanding that companies of this nature don’t turn a profit for at least two to three years. We were only maintaining it to make it sustainable and to provide employment opportunities for the employees who worked there.
Mallory and other members of the Urban Collective appeared before the council asking for a break on the rent they owed and for the city to replace the air conditioning and fix the leaky roof. They also sought to strike a different deal with the city. At that time, they owed $41,846.26 in unpaid rent, an amount that has since doubled.
They noted that the city pays Big3 Entertainment, run by one of the city’s wealthiest residents, Bill Edwards, $25,000 a month to run the Mahaffey Theater, plus a $15,000 bonus for each “big number” that occurs there. They asked: Why can’t Manhattan Casino have a similar arrangement?
The city also bailed out the group that manages the baseball diamonds in Walter Fuller Park and twice cut rent for Great Explorations in the city-owned Sunken Gardens.
Edmond, one of the investors and the new president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, talks about structural racism. He worked on a study on structural racism presented to city council almost a year ago.
“You mean tell me the tallest building on the waterfront is subsidized, but a community asset, do you have to pay the rent?” he said. “Where do we find fairness? »
Elder Jordan built the Manhattan Casino so that black people could not only come together and have fun during the height of racism and segregation, but also develop business acumen — a need that still exists today, said his grandson, Basha Jordan.
“I think there were mistakes made on both sides,” Jordan said. “I let the mayor know that it would be good for the city to forgive and support another avenue.”
The worst conditions
This March city council meeting ended on a hopeful note. The Urban Collective and the city’s elected officials were about to meet again to make an amendment to the current lease. But relations quickly broke down.
Just like the Manhattan Casino. The upstairs air conditioning failed. The Urban Collective was forced to cancel dozens of events because the temperature in the ballroom was intolerable. They purchased and installed four window units to prevent the wood floors from warping.
The city says the tenant is responsible for any repair bills up to $5,000. Invoices shared with the Tampa Bay Times show investors spent about $11,636 on multiple repairs. The estimate for a new Soronen air conditioning unit submitted to the city in June: $325,460.
Additionally, city road construction on 22nd Street cut off southbound access to the casino for six months. A road closure sign has been placed directly in front of the casino entrance on the northbound lane.
Tensions came to a head during the November 10 city council meeting. Welch was adamant that the urban collective’s time was up. He was backed by council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders, who said she was disappointed with the situation.
“Going there, the lease was still the lease,” she said. “One thing I won’t do is hold myself accountable if someone makes bad business decisions.”
An unlikely alliance was formed when council chairwoman Gina Driscoll and new council member Brother John Muhammad, whose district includes the Manhattan Casino, suggested locking investors and city administrators into a room to figure it out.
In an interview after Thursday’s council discussion, Welch said discussions with the urban collective were still related to extending their lease. He said comparisons about why the city has different management deals with Mahaffey Theatre, Walter Fuller and Great Explorations are not valid.
As Pinellas County Commissioner in 2017, he wrote a letter to then-Mayor Rick Kriseman on behalf of another group seeking to run the casino and thought they had not been fairly shaken. Kriseman instead awarded the lease to Farias and the Callaloo Group, who submitted an unsolicited proposal.
Based on that, Welch said he knows “there are other groups that might have a better team, a better plan.”