Bad business or sabotage by the city?

ST. PETERSBURG — To city officials, the story is straightforward: The lease is up at the historic Manhattan Casino and it’s time to see if there’s someone else out there who can revive it as a cultural gathering spot.

But the young, local and Black entrepreneurs who took over the lease say they don’t feel like they’ve gotten a fair chance to do and keep the job. They say they’re up to the task if the city would just do its part to maintain the venue that it owns.

Instead, the air conditioning is shot and the roof is leaking so they can’t book the main hall for events. Throw in a pandemic and road construction in front of the building, and they say they’re out a quarter-million dollars just keeping the doors open.

They say they’re frustrated that Ken Welch, the city’s first Black mayor elected earlier this year on a platform of bringing equity to the 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, one of the members of operating group the Urban Collective and president of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida.

Welch said he’s seeking to make that happen. He said he wasn’t involved with Urban Collective taking over the casino operations or developing the lease terms. He said its expiration Nov. 30 provides the opportunity to look at other options.

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

“But they signed on to the contract that existed.”

Who is the Urban Collective?

The Manhattan Casino on 22nd Street S. opened in 1925 and served as the heartbeat of the Deuces, a segregation-era Black entertainment and business district, featuring acts ranging from Louis Armstrong to James Brown.

The casino closed in 1968 and remained dormant until the city bought the building in 2002, reopening it in 2011. But a succession of businesses ventures 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 struggling. The 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 did not want to move forward.

That was the third venture that failed at the casino property 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.

The new investors, Farias and even the city agree that the lease with the city is not a good deal. It puts the rent, costs of operations and upkeep on the leaseholder. Plus, the new group inherited Farias’ unpaid rent obligations. And with no foot traffic or surrounding restaurants or businesses, they knew making good on what was owed would be hard.

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 the revenue, was 17 years old and on its last legs. Running a broken unit sent the energy bill soaring, adding to the costs. And when it rains, the roof leaks water and creates puddles in the middle of the ballroom.

“We took on this debt with our hearts in saving something what we want in our community,” Mallory told the City Council in March. “We all came into this ordeal understanding that businesses of this nature do not turn a profit for at least two to three years. We were just maintaining it to sustain it and to supply job opportunities to the employees working there.”

Mallory and other members of the Urban Collective appeared before the council to ask for a break on the rent they owed and for the city to replace the air conditioning and fix the leaky roof. They also sought to strike a different agreement with the city. At that point they owed $41,846.26 on unpaid rent, an amount that has since doubled.

They noted that the city pays Big3 Entertainment, run by one of the city’s richest residents, Bill Edwards, $25,000 every month to manage the Mahaffey Theater, plus a $15,000 incentive for every “top act” that performs there. They asked: Why can’t the Manhattan Casino have a similar arrangement?

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

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

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

Elder Jordan built the Manhattan Casino so Black people could not only convene and enjoy themselves at the height of racism and segregation, but also build business acumen — a need that still exists today, said his grandson, Basha Jordan.

“I think there have been mistakes made on both sides,” Jordan said. “I let the mayor know that it would be of good posture for the city to forgive and support another avenue.”

Worse conditions

That City Council meeting in March ended on a hopeful note. The Urban Collective and city officials were on track to meet again to make an amendment to the current lease. But relations soon broke down.

So did the Manhattan Casino. The air conditioning upstairs gave out. The Urban Collective was forced to cancel dozens of events because the temperature in the ballroom was intolerable. They bought and installed four window units to keep the wood floors from buckling.

The city says the tenant is responsible for any repair bills up to $5,000. Invoices shared with the Tampa Bay Times show the investors spent around $11,636 on multiple repairs. The estimate for a new air conditioning unit Soronen submitted to the city in June: $325,460.

Further, the city’s road construction on 22nd Street has cut off southbound access to the casino for six months. A road closure sign was placed directly in front of the casino’s driveway on the northbound lane.

Tensions came to a head at the Nov. 10 City Council meeting. Welch was adamant that the Urban Collective’s time was up. He was backed up by council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders, who said she was disappointed in the situation.

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

An unlikely alliance formed when council chairperson Gina Driscoll and the council’s newest member, Brother John Muhammad, whose district includes the Manhattan Casino, suggesting locking the investors and city administrators in a room to figure it out.

In an interview after Thursday’s council discussion, Welch said discussions with the Urban Collective were always tied to extending their lease. He said comparisons as to why the city has different management agreements with Mahaffey Theater, Walter Fuller and Great Explorations aren’t valid.

As a Pinellas County commissioner in 2017, he wrote a letter to then-Mayor Rick Kriseman on behalf of another group seeking to run the casino and thought they didn’t get a fair shake. Kriseman instead awarded the lease to Farias and the Callaloo group, which submitted an unsolicited proposal.

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