UPDATED AT 6 PM. TO INCLUDE CALLALOO GROUP'S ADDRESS: Who can blame folks in Midtown, a predominantly African-American neighborhood in St. Petersburg, for protesting Mayor Rick Kriseman's decision to put the historic Manhattan Casino in the hands of community outsiders?
It's their historic landmark, after all. Theirs. They've always had a sense of ownership about the place. As the Tampa Bay Times called it, "a symbol of black resistance to segregation and self-reliance in the city. ... (a) 92-year-old building where greats such as James Brown, Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald once performed."
To Midtowners, putting the Manhattan Casino in the hands of Pipo's, what amounts to a gentrified Cuban restaurant chain, is a little bit like the City of Memphis turning Beale Street's Wet Willie's into a Red Lobster. Or New York City giving Harlem's Apollo Theater to a conglomerate from Opryland.
It's a kind of social sacrilege.
And none of it makes sense.
For one thing, the collection of people behind the venture didn't register their company with the state Division of Corporations until Aug. 18, the day Kriseman chose them.
Meaning, there was no such thing as the Callaloo Group until Aug. 18. Check it out for yourself on the Division of Corporations website.
Even the address given on the Callaloo Group LLC's corporation registration is bogus. Both principal address and mailing address for the business are given as 642 22nd St., South St. Petersburg 33712. But that is Manhattan Casino's address. Unless Callaloo is squatting, this is not the group's address. The city commission isn't due to vote on Kriseman's bid choice until Sept. 7.
Bottom line here is, Mayor Kriseman was blown away by a proposal in July from a company that was a puff of smoke at the time, from a collection of peripherally involved individuals cobbled together for their potential to make money in the black community. That can't look or feel good if you've lived most of your life in South St. Pete and given your heart to it.
As of Thursday, Callaloo Group still had no EIN number, a federal Employer Identification Number, and it can't hire employees until it does. Right now it's a paper dream.
None of this is to say restaurateur Ramon Hernandez, executive chef Gary Moran, director of development Mario Farias and former Tampa Bay Bucs wide receiver/vice president Vincent Jackson -- all listed in the proposal as partners -- don't have a sound business plan.
In fact, Ben Kirby, the mayor's spokesman, asked me enthusiastically Thursday, "Have you had a good look at Callaloo's business proposal?" And I had to admit, yes I had. I also admitted, considering the last venture at the Manhattan Casino -- a soul food restaurant called Sylvia's disappeared in a sea of red ink -- a good business plan is important.
But, come on. This was a bull-in-a-china-shop decision. Kriseman made it by stepping over -- no, marching through -- the black community. There were three other proposals that might have better reflected the building's cultural significance in the black community.
I'm not even going to talk about the foolish politics of a Democratic mayor who is already losing to his Republican challenger in the polls, completely disregarding a large constituency he needs to win. I'm just wondering why Kriseman -- forget his title -- thought he alone could/should speak for the community.
Even people who support him are angry over the Callaloo decision and told the Times so:
- Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, the only African-American on the City Council, said she felt excluded from the decision-making. "I need concrete and specific assurances there will be significant and continuous participation and decision making by members of the Midtown African-American community in regards to the policies and operations of the Manhattan Casino portion of this project," she said. "It is of collective memories and heritage. Collective memories hold communities together."
- State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg: "The Manhattan Casino is a critical part of the character and cultural history of South St. Petersburg. One of the main purposes of rebuilding the Casino was to provide economic opportunity for African American entrepreneurs right here in our community, as well as to create a cultural point that we could be proud of. This proposal meets neither of those goals, and should be rejected."
- Sevell Brown, former president of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference chapter, said he no longer can support Kriseman. Brown claims the mayor broke a promise he made to focus on black businesses along "The Deuces," or 22nd Street S. "It's racial insensitivity and nonsense, he said.
Kriseman's team claims they're proud of the mayor for ignoring political expediency and making the Manhattan Casino decision so close to the election. Callaloo, he says, has "the best chance of success" and he's sticking to his guns.
But this was an unnecessary rush to judgment at best.
In failing to seek or consider input from the black community over this lease, in failing to show the community how a Cuban-influenced fusion restaurant mixing Southern and Caribbean is better -- how it is closer to the community's goal of providing economic opportunity and cultural preservation than any of the other three lease proposals, he proves he doesn't have a clue what Midtown has been telling him.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith