Although the item was removed from the St. Petersburg City Council’s agenda, a number of citizens came before Council members and Mayor Rick Kriseman Thursday to express discontent with the decision to lease and operate the historic Manhattan Casino to the Callaloo Group.
Leading Callaloo is Ramon Hernandez, operator of Pipo’s Cuban restaurants, who intends to offer a “Floribbean” fusion restaurant at the Casino.
Kriseman’s choice smacks of gentrification, as another “urban displacement project,” said state Rep. (and former Council member) Wengay Newton.
Newton, a member of Midtown’s black community, also held a news conference Wednesday denouncing the move.
“This gentrification can’t go on without you,” Newton told the eight Council members. “I would hope you would look the other way.” He continued talking after his three minutes of public comment were expired, leading his former colleagues to turn off his microphone.
“We have very few legacies in the black community that I can take pride in,” said mayoral candidate Theresa “Mama T” Lassiter, who is running against Kriseman in next week’s primary election. She suggested that Vincent Jackson, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer the Callaloo Group added to their team in making their bid, would be better off getting involved with a project at Tangerine Plaza.
“I think the city would do well to listen to those who are expressing concerns and not really dismiss it as something as being emotional or reactionary,” said neighborhood activist Brother John Muhammed.
District 6 City Council candidate Akile Cainion said Kriseman made his decision in the interests of profit, while naming former Mayor Rick Baker as an “architect of gentrification.”
“Once again the black community is being preyed upon with decisions being made on our behalf,” she said. “This is because, within the status quo, the black community doesn’t have any political or economic power.”
In addition to leasing out the Manhattan Casino, the city also proposed locating a BMW motorcycle dealership at the Sno-Peak Drive-In site on 22nd Street South, a notion widely ridiculed in Midtown.
“I can’t think of a single person that actually lives in the Midtown community that would be able to or even want to buy a BMW motorcycle,” said Robert Ward, pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.
“History should always come before politics,” said Corey Givens, Jr., who, like Cainion, is a candidate for City Council District 6.
Kriseman said among the criteria his staff used when looking for a new Manhattan Casino tenant was that plans had to honor the historical significance of the building and be financially viable. The Callaloo Group were the only bidders meeting those requirements.
The mayor pointed out that the politically expedient decision would have been to delay a decision until after next week’s primary election, but it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do for the public.
The issue will come before the City Council on Sept. 7. A contract between the group and the city must get the Council’s approval before going forward.