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Callaloo Group talks Manhattan Casino plans with St. Pete City Council

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The decision by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman‘s administration to award the Callaloo Group to take over the historic Manhattan Casino last month was not exactly met with universal praise in the community – even amongst the mayor’s most fervent supporters in South St. Pete.

At Thursday’s City Council meeting, members of the Callaloo Group made their case as to why they will be worthy of the choice.

“We understand the challenges that lie ahead, and we understand the responsibilities that go on with what the Manhattan stands for,” said Vincent Jackson, vice president of the Callaloo Group, and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer wide receiver.

The Callaloo Group plans to provide a full-service restaurant and bar that will be open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. They’re led by Ramon Hernandez, the owner of Pipo’s Cafe. The plan is to bring classic Cuban fare with Floridian fusion in a concept called “Florribean.” Callaloo will also use part of the space as a commissary to expand their catering operations.

“The Calaloo Group was the only one of the four that included capital and the financial backing required to implement and sustain the project,” said city development administrator Alan DeLisle, who added that while Mayor Kriseman explored discussions about a possible partnership between the groups, those talks “were not fruitful.”

Although some in the community have criticized in particular the commissary portion of the Calaloo Group’s bid, DeLisle said that is a crucial element, since that part of the business will operate in off-hours from the restaurant, which will generate additional hiring and stabilize income.

Former Mayor Rick Baker and some members of the Southside community have been extremely critical of Kriseman’s decision. That includes state Rep. Wengay Newton, who criticized the council’s decision to even have the discussion on the Manhattan Casino on Thursday, with so many St. Pete residents still literally in the dark struggling without electricity since Hurricane Irma hit on Sunday night.

“I don’t understand the urgency,” Newton said, referring to the fact that other items that were originally scheduled to be discussing had been continued until next week.

“Why the hurry? Why wait? That building has been empty for how long?” asked Deborah Figgs-Sanders, the digital editor of Power Broker magazine and former executive director of the YMCA in Childs Park who has been brought on by Calaloo to work on the project. 

Critics of the Callaloo Group’s proposal have also mocked their concept of a commissary for their catering options, but DeLisle said that was an important part of their bid, since it will operate during the hours when the restaurant isn’t open for paying customers and will generate additional hiring and “stabilize income.”

“I want to underscore that commissary concept and how important something like that is,” said DeLisle.

The Callaloo Group has promised to hire 25 people once they are up and running, with all employees coming from the Southside CRA.

Jackson said he’s heard from the critics, and says he welcomes their input.

“Everybody has the same goal. Everybody’s emotions are involved because they want to see something great happen with that space,” he said. “It’s an event space. It’s a catering space. It’s food. It’s entertainment. It’s history. It’s art. We want to see the same they want to see.”

Councilman Steve Kornell said he was undecided on whether to approve the proposal, but he would be extremely upset if the group didn’t live up to its promises to hire employees and artists from the black community.

Jackson’s involvement has been derided by critics. Newton said at a press conference that he would stand down regarding his disappointment if he knew Jackson had a majority share participation in the group.

Larry Newsome, who ran Sylvia’s restaurant, urged the council to table any decision on the Manhattan Casino until after the mayoral election in November, saying that while the Callaloo Group has support from the current administration, that could all change if Baker becomes mayor later this year.

“Midtown is not business as usual. There’s no question that things can and will go wrong,” Newsome said, referring to his own experiences.”The operator is going to need a strong commitment from the city, otherwise, Midtown may have another failure on its hands.”

Newsome also took a shot at Jackson, saying that the Callaloo Group was given several months to get its proposal together “to get a black face” in front of it while the other groups were only given 30 days to respond to the RFP.

While Jackson declined to address that comment when he came before the council, Figgs-Sanders could not resist.

“Getting a black face to represent? Why I would like to thank him for that,” she said, adding that Newsome comment wasn’t completely accurate.” He forgot the pretty black lady, I’m cute!”

Council is scheduled to vote on whether to accept the Callaloo Group’s proposal next month.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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