British stone. ST. PETERSBURG — For city officials, the situation was simple: The lease on the historic Manhattan casino was up, and it was time to see if someone else could revive it as a cultural gathering place.
But the young, local and black entrepreneurs who took over the leases say they Don’t feel like they have a fair chance to do and keep the job. They say they are up to the task if the city does what it can to maintain the grounds it owns.
Instead, the air conditioner was broken and the roof was leaking, so they couldn’t book the main hall for an event. Add in the pandemic and road construction in front of the building, and they say $250,000 is lost just by keeping the doors open.
They said they were dismayed that Ken Welch, the city’s first black mayor, was elected earlier this year on a platform that brought equity to St. Louis. Minority communities in St. Petersburg, will not cooperate with them.
“Why don’t historic casinos thrive and survive under our first black mayor?” said Trevor Mallory, a member of the Urban Collective’s operating group and chairman of the Florida Democratic Black Caucus.
Welch said he’s working hard to make that happen. He said he was not involved in Urban Collective taking over the casino operations or setting the terms of the lease. He said it was due in November. 30 provides an opportunity to view other options.
“If you’re going to build an intentional access channel for minority-owned businesses, you need to start from the ground up,” he said. “this is not.
“But they signed existing contracts.”
Who is Urban Collective?
Opened in 1925, the Manhattan Casino on South 22nd Street is the heart of the Deuces, a black entertainment and business district during the apartheid era, and has played host to everyone from Louis Armstrong to James Brown.
The casino closed in 1968 and remained dormant until the city purchased the building in 2002 and reopened in 2011. But a string of business ventures failed to take root there.
In the summer of 2021, a group that meets regularly in downtown St. Petersburg to talk local politics heard that Manhattan casinos were once again in trouble. 22 South Food Hall, which replaced Callaloo Restaurant, is closing. One of those investors, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Vincent Jackson, has died and his trust doesn’t want to move forward.
It was the third failed casino property to close since Sylvia’s restaurant opened in 2013 and was evicted three years later for non-payment of rent.
So seven people: Trevor Mallory, Jabaar Edmond, Tamisha Darling-Roberson, Dan Soronen, LaShante Keys, Jason Bryant and Ella Coffee formed Urban Collective and took over the lease from developer Mario Farias.
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New investors, Farias and even the city government don’t think the lease with the city government is a good deal. It puts rent, operating costs and maintenance costs on the lessee. In addition, the new group inherited Farias’ outstanding rental obligations. With no foot traffic or restaurants or businesses around, they knew it would be difficult to pay back what they owed.
However, members of the Urban Collective said they were unaware that the 17-year-old air-conditioning unit in the upstairs ballroom, which generates 85 percent of the casino’s revenue, is in its final stages. Running broken equipment can send energy bills skyrocketing, adding to costs. When it rains, the roof leaks and forms a puddle in the center of the dance hall.
“We took on this debt wholeheartedly to save what our community wanted,” Mallory told the city council in March. “We’ve all been through that grind, learning that a business of this nature isn’t going to be profitable for at least two to three years. We’re just maintaining it to sustain it and provide jobs for the people who work there.”
Mallory and other members of the Urban Collective appeared before the committee to demand relief of the rent they owed and for the city to replace the air conditioner and fix the leaky roof. They also tried to reach a different deal with the city. At that time they owed $41,846.26 in unpaid rent, It has since doubled.
They point out that the city pays Big3 Entertainment, run by one of the city’s wealthiest residents, Bill Edwards, $25,000 a month to manage the Mahaffey Theater, in addition to paying for every “top performer” who plays there. ” offering a $15,000 incentive. They ask: Why can’t Manhattan casinos have similar arrangements?
The city also bailed out the group that manages the Walter Fuller Park baseball stadium and twice lowered Great Explorations’ rent on a city-owned Sunken Garden.
Edmond, one of the investors and the new chairman of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, called it structural racism. About a year ago, he was involved in a structural racism study presented to the city council.
“You mean to tell me that the largest buildings on the waterfront are subsidized, but community assets, you have to pay rent?” he said. “Where do we find equity?”
Elder Jordan built the Manhattan casinos so that black people could not only come together and enjoy life at the height of racism and segregation, but also develop business acumen — a need that still exists today, says his grandson, Bartha Jordan.
“I Think mistakes were made on both sides,” Jordan said. “I let the mayor know that it was a good gesture for the city to forgive and support another path. “
The March City Council meeting ended on a hopeful note. Urban Collective and city officials are expected to meet again to make amendments to the current lease. But the relationship soon fell apart.
The same goes for Manhattan casinos. The upstairs air conditioner didn’t work. The Urban Collective was forced to cancel dozens of events due to unbearable temperatures in the ballroom. They purchased and installed four window units to keep the wooden floors from buckling.
Tenants are responsible for paying up to $5,000 for any repairs, the city said. Invoices shared with the Tampa Bay Times show the investor spent about $11,636 on multiple repairs. The estimated value of the new air conditioner Soronen submitted to the city in June: $325,460.
In addition, the city’s road construction on 22nd Street has cut off southbound access to the casino for six months. A road closure sign is placed directly in front of the driveway on the northbound lanes of the casino.
Tensions came to a head in November. 10 City Council meeting. Welch is convinced that the days of the Urban Collective are over. He was backed by council member Deborah Figes-Sanders, who said she was disappointed by the situation.
“With that in mind, a lease is still a lease,” she said. “One thing I wouldn’t do is hold myself accountable to someone who made a bad business decision.”
In an unlikely alliance, council president Gina Driscoll and the council’s newest member, Brother John Muhammad, whose district includes Manhattan casinos, have proposed a Investors and city managers locked themselves in a room to figure it out.
In an interview following Thursday’s council discussions, Welch said discussions with Urban Collective were always tied to lease extensions. Comparing why the city has different management agreements with Mahaffey Theatre, Walter Fuller and Great Explorations is not valid, he said.
As Pinellas County commissioner in 2017, he wrote to then-Mayor Rick Kresseman on behalf of another group seeking to operate a casino and argued they hadn’t been treated fairly. 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 might have a better team, a better plan.”