ST. PETERSBURG (FOX 13) - The historic Manhattan Casino, a centerpiece in St. Petersburg's African American community, is becoming the center of a controversy after a group of prominent leaders spoke out Wednesday against a plan to redevelop the building into a Cuban restaurant.
The Manhattan Casino became a popular place during segregation when it was the only place in St. Pete artists like B.B. King and Duke Ellington could perform. But the building, which is city-owned, has sat vacant for more than a year.
Last week, city leaders announced a new restaurant will be opening inside the casino, a Cuban restaurant called Callaloo, which is co-owned by former NFL star Vincent Jackson, who promised to honor the community's African American roots.
During a news conference Wednesday, however, community activists led by Pinellas County Rep. Wengay Newton criticized the plan for being an "urban displacement project."
"Quite frankly, the urban displacement projects that have been happening throughout this community," Newton said.
Newton believes city leaders aren't doing enough to subsidize potential business owners who live in the 22nd Street South area and he thinks the culture is being ignored because it's in a low-income neighborhood.
"I don't think anyone that looks like me has had an opportunity to participate or to win an opportunity to be able to... build or manage any of these [projects]," Newton said.
Mayor Rick Kriseman's office took issue with that criticism, telling FOX 13 the city has set aside more than $1.5 million over the last two years to invest in the Midtown neighborhood where the casino is located. A spokesperson for the mayor called this a "desperate campaign ploy" by Kriseman's opponent, former Mayor Rick Baker.
But the activists who spoke Wednesday disagreed saying, "this is a moral and righteous issue that we're trying to face and deal with. It doesn't matter who's sitting in that office."