They insist it isn’t political.
On Wednesday, St. Petersburg House Democrat Wengay Newton, along with two other religious figures based in South St. Petersburg, blasted the Rick Kriseman administration for what they believe was an emphasis on gentrifying Midtown, the predominantly black section of the city.
Newton said the catalyst for holding a press conference six days before the mayoral primary was what happened last Friday when Kriseman announced The Callaloo Group won a bid to lease and operate the historic Manhattan Casino at 646 22nd Street S (and the site of Wednesday’s press conference).
Pipo Cuban restaurant chain President Ramon Hernandez leads The Callaloo Group.
Newton said the only reason the group won the bid is the addition of former Tampa Bay Buccaneer wide receiver Vincent Jackson.
“They got a gentleman who plays for the Bucs to come over and say that he’s part of their investment group. But I challenge you if he’s a 51 percent owner, and I betcha he’s not,” said Newton, adding that if Jackson did not own a majority of the project, “he’s just another black face.”
Mario Farias, the Calaloo Group’s strategic consultant, acknowledges Jackson does not own a majority in the group, but said neither did anyone else. “He does hold a high stake in the company,” Farias said. “He’s one of the decision makers.”
At his press conference last Friday announcing that the Callaloo Group had been chosen over three other bidders, the mayor said that Callaloo was best positioned to succeed based on their restaurant and event experience, financial strength, commitment to hiring from within the Community Redevelopment Area, as well as a willingness to collaborate with the community to highlight the building’s rich history and legacy.
In parts of Midtown, the decision is being met with disappointment and anger by a crucial segment of the electorate as Kriseman faces a re-election challenge in Tuesday’s primary from former Mayor Rick Baker.
Losing out on the bid was the Manhattan Casino Legacy Collaborative. A member of that group, Gloria Campbell, attended the press conference Wednesday. “If we lose this, we might as well write off the rest of 22nd St.,” she said.
Newton said the city has historically worked with developers to help them on projects. But that’s not happening under Kriseman, he added.
“If you come to the city now, if you ain’t got all the money, you can forget about it,” Newton said. “And if you look me, as of today, there’s no projects that have been awarded to people who look like me, even if they participated fairly. And what they’re doing to disqualify them, is money. That don’t make any sense.”
Joining Newton was longtime St. Petersburg civil rights activist Seville Brown and Robert Ward, pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.
“I’m very concerned about what’s taking place in this particular area,” Ward said.
While Newton’s support of Baker is well-known, when asked if they also supported Baker’s candidacy, both Brown and Ward answered, “absolutely.”
Brown said he was neutral until a Tampa Bay Times article Saturday about Kriseman’s selection for the Manhattan Casino. Brown called Baker that evening, and he shared his indignation when they met Sunday.
“Prior to that, I had not chosen who I was going to stand with,” Brown said.
Emphasizing that his discontent came from his heart and was not political (something he repeated throughout the press conference), Newton said that, prior to the news conference, he had contacted all other black elected officials representing Midtown: Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, School Board member Rene Flowers and state Senator Darryl Rouson, all Kriseman supporters. None attended the press conference (He also said he had hoped to contact City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, but didn’t have her phone number).
Welch spoke with Newton Wednesday night, suggesting that instead of holding a press conference, he should meet with Kriseman, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin or another key staff member to understand the mayor’s rationale for choosing the Callaloo Group. Kriseman had informed him that financial stability was crucial.
Welch said that Kriseman told him financial stability was essential.
“He didn’t want another failure in a year or two, and that’s why he picked what he thought was the strongest team,” Welch added.
The longtime Pinellas Commissioner does agree with Newton that the focus in Midtown should be about enhancing the people’s ability to work their way out of poverty, not replacing them.
In a blog post on TheBurgVotes.com, Flowers, who served on the City Council during much of Baker’s two terms in office in the aughts, acknowledges that Manhattan Casino was renovated with federal funds under his watch. But Flowers wrote that Baker left the facility vacant as he and his Deputy Mayor of Midtown refused to negotiate an agreement with anyone. The building remained empty until his successor, Mayor Bill Foster, opened the venue for community use.
Flowers also assailed Baker regarding other properties in Midtown.
“The Grogan property across the street, EMPTY under his watch; the building where McCall’s had a restaurant next to the Royal Theater, EMPTY and then condemned; the Old Hardens Grocery store now Chief Creole Café, EMPTY until after Baker left office; the building that now occupies Gallery 909 and a former Barbecue Restaurant, also EMPTY during his terms,” Flowers writes.
Baker agreed that it looks like a push toward gentrification.
“When we rebuilt the Manhattan Casino during my term as mayor, the intention was always to have a restaurant tenant that reflected the history of the Manhattan and has deep roots in St. Petersburg and Midtown — a soul food menu more like Atwaters & McCalls. Bringing a chain Cuban restaurant and a BMW motorcycle dealership to the historic Manhattan and SnoPeak sites on the deuces seems designed to push the community out — not involve them in the future,” Baker said Wednesday.
“The mayor’s office will not comment on desperate campaign ploys,” said Ben Kirby, the Kriseman’s Communication Director.
FloridaPolitics.com also reached out to Kriseman’s campaign team and will include any comment to this story once received.