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All dressed up and going nowhere

Two years after renovation, the Manhattan Casino awaits a tenant and activity.

By CRISTINA SILVA, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007


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St. Petersburg- The Manhattan Casino was supposed to be the crown jewel of Midtown, the catalyst that would help transform 22nd Street S into a bustling, prosperous business district.

Instead, the historic African-American community center has remained vacant since renovation was completed nearly two years ago.

Business leaders in the area are struggling, they say, and they are waiting for the big-name attraction the city promised in order to bring some relief.

Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis, whose job duties include bringing economic development to Midtown, said the city has spent two years searching for a successful restaurant to lease the first floor and is willing to wait as long it takes to find that perfect tenant.

"The worst thing we can do is be impatient and do something silly with the Manhattan Casino and not honor the community," he said.

But black community leaders said they are not sure how much longer they can wait.

"We have been waiting patiently, but I also think that patience wears thin at some point and folks want action," said Darryl Rouson, a former leader of the St. Petersburg NAACP and a prominent black lawyer.

Built in 1925, the Manhattan Casino was once the epicenter of the city's African-American community. The dance hall provided a place for blacks to gather and socialize in a time when they were confined to certain parts of the city under Jim Crow laws.

James Brown, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ray Charles are among the long list of performers that graced the stage.

The building closed in 1966, two years after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act denouncing segregation.

The Casino became neglected. In 2001, the city bought the structure for $395,000 and pledged to restore it to its former glory.

Restoration costs totaled at least $2-million, less than half of which was paid for with federal funding.

The building was designed to serve as both a community center and food establishment that would attract new customers to Midtown, an area long regarded as one of the poorest and most neglected parts of the city.

In recent years, city officials have tried to reach out to well-known African-American restaurants like Sweet Georgia Brown of Detroit and Sylvia's soul food of Harlem, N.Y., to persuade them to set up shop at the Casino. But those discussions did not pan out.

The building is completed and could essentially house a tenant immediately, although the first floor would have to be renovated with kitchen gear appropriate for whatever restaurant takes the space. The second floor will serve as the community center.

"We know that we need to attract someone that will be a draw to the area," said council member Earnest Williams, whose district includes Midtown. "Sometimes it takes a little while to be able to do that."

Williams said it isn't unrealistic for the city to hold out for a national restaurant chain, even though Midtown is not as busy as downtown or other neighborhoods that already have thriving business communities.

"We want to see this just as bad as they want to see it happen," he said of the city's critics. "It's really just about marketing."

Deputy Mayor Davis said investors have been reluctant to move into the area. Construction of a new Pinellas County Job Corps Center is slated to begin in Midtown in January, and Davis said he is confident that potential tenants will be more willing to move into the area then.

The city faced a similar challenge when it set out to bring a supermarket to the area in 2001. For years, there were no interested parties. A Sweetbay finally opened on 22nd Avenue Sin 2005.

"We found a pioneer with Sweetbay ... but we haven't found a pioneer restaurant to be in that area yet," Davis said.

Cristina Silva can be reached at csilva@sptimes.com or 727 893-8846.

"The worst thing we can do is be impatient and do something silly with the Manhattan Casino and not honor the community."

Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis

Fast facts

About the Manhattan Casino

Location: 642 22nd St. S

Significance: Built in 1925, it was used as a black dance hall during segregation. The site was designated a historic property in December 1994.

Current status: Vacant. The city is searching for a tenant that would manage the property, including a community center on the second floor and a restaurant on the first floor.

[Last modified September 30, 2007, 00:03:53]


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