Bad business or city sabotage?

ST. PETERSBURG — For city officials, the story is simple: The lease on the historic Manhattan Casino is up and it’s time to see if there’s anyone else out there who can revive it as a cultural gathering place.

But the young local and black entrepreneurs who have taken over the lease say yes they don’t feel like they’ve had a fair chance of making and keeping the job. They say they are up to the task if the city does its part to keep the headquarters it owns.

Instead, the air conditioning is broken and the roof is leaking, so they can’t book the main hall for events. Add a pandemic and road construction in front of the building, and they say they’re out a quarter of a million dollars just by 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, won’t work with them.

“Under our first black mayor, how did the historic casino not thrive and survive?” said Trevor Mallory, a member of the Urban Collective task force and chair of the Florida Democratic Black Caucus.

Welch said he’s trying to make that happen. He said he was not involved with Urban Collective taking over the casino’s operations or developing the lease terms. He said his November 30 deadline offers him an opportunity to look at other options.

“If you’re going to build purposeful access for minority businesses, it has to be built from the ground up,” he said. “This was not.

“But they signed the contract that existed.”

Who is the Urban Collective?

The Manhattan Casino on 22nd Street S. opened in 1925 and was the beating heart of the Deuces, a segregation-era black business and entertainment district, featuring shows ranging from Duke Ellington to James Brown.

The casino closed in 1968 and sat dormant until the city bought the building in 2002, reopening it in 2011. But a number of business ventures have failed to take root there.

In the summer of 2021, a group that met regularly in downtown St. Petersburg to talk local politics heard that, once again, the Manhattan Casino was in trouble. 22 South Food Hall, the concept that replaced the Callaloo restaurant, was closing. One of the investors, former Tampa Bay buccaneer Vincent Jackson, had died and his trust would not continue.

That was the third failed venture into casino ownership since Sylvia’s restaurant opened in 2013 and closed three years later, evicted for not paying rent.

So seven people: Trevor Mallory, Jabaar Edmond, Tamisha Darling-Roberson, Dan Soronen, LaShante Keys, Jason Bryant and Ella Coffee formed the Urban Collective and took over the lease from developer Mario Farias.

New investors, Farias, and even the city agree that renting with the city isn’t a good deal. Puts the rent, operations costs and maintenance on the lessee. Additionally, the new group inherited Farias’ unpaid rent obligations. And with no foot traffic or surrounding restaurants or businesses, they knew meeting what was due would be difficult.

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Members of the Urban Collective, however, said they didn’t realize that the air-conditioning unit for the upstairs ballroom, the casino’s moneymaker that brings in 85% of revenue, had 17 years and was exhausted. Running a broken unit drove up your energy bill, driving up costs. And when it rains, the roof leaks and creates puddles in the center of the ballroom.

“We took on this debt with our hearts to save something we want in our community,” Mallory told city council in March. “We have all entered this ordeal understanding that companies of this nature do not make a profit for at least two or three years. We were just keeping it to support it and to provide employment opportunities for the employees who work there.”

Mallory and other members of the Urban Collective went before the council to ask for a hold on the rent owed and for the city to replace the air conditioning and fix the leaking roof. They also tried to make a different deal with the city. They owed $41,846.26 in unpaid rent by then, 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 each month to operate the Mahaffey Theater, plus a $15,000 stimulus for every “top act” who performs there. They asked: why can’t Manhattan Casino have a similar deal?

The city also bailed out the group that manages the Walter Fuller Park ballparks and reduced Great Explorations’ rent at the city-owned Sunken Gardens.

Edmond, one of the investors and the new president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, calls it structural racism. He worked on a study on structural racism presented to the City Council almost a year ago.

“You mean the bigger building on the waterfront is subsidized, but a community asset, you have to pay the rent?” he said. “Where do we find equity?”

The elder Jordan built the Manhattan Casino so black people could not only gather and have fun at the height of racism and segregation but also develop business acumen, a need that still exists today, said his grandson, Basha Jordan .

“I I think there were mistakes on both sides,” Jordan said. “I let the mayor know it bodes well for the city to forgive and support another avenue.”

Worst conditions

That March city council meeting ended on a hopeful note. The Urban Collective and city officials were well on their way to meeting again to make a change to the current lease. But relations soon broke down.

So did the Manhattan Casino. The air conditioning upstairs gave out. The Collettivo Urbano was forced to cancel dozens of events because the temperature in the ballroom was intolerable. They purchased and installed four windows to keep the hardwood floors from warping.

The city says the tenant is responsible for any repair fees 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 air conditioning unit Soronen presented to the city in June: $325,460.

In addition, construction of the city highway on 22nd Street blocked southbound access to the casino for six months. A road closure sign was placed directly in front of the casino driveway on the northbound lane.

Tensions came to a head during the city council meeting on November 10. Welch was adamant that the Urban Collective’s time was up. He was backed by board member Deborah Figgs-Sanders, who said she was disappointed by the situation.

“Going into that, the lease was still the lease,” he said. “One thing I’m not going to do is hold myself accountable for someone making bad business decisions.”

An unlikely alliance was formed when Board Chairman Gina Driscoll and new board member Brother John Muhammad, whose district includes the Manhattan Casino, suggested locking investors and city managers in a room to figure it out .

In an interview after Thursday’s board discussion, Welch said discussions with the Urban Collective were always related to extending the lease. He said comparisons about why the city has different management agreements with Mahaffey Theatre, Walter Fuller and Great Explorations are invalid.

As Pinellas County commissioner in 2017, he wrote a letter to then-Mayor Rick Kriseman on behalf of another group trying to run the casino and thought he hadn’t been getting a fair shake. Instead, Kriseman awarded the lease to Farias and the Callaloo group, who submitted a spontaneous offer.

Based on that, Welch said he knows “there are other groups out there that might have a better team, a better plan.”

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