After a long wait, construction is set to start to bring a branch of the world-famous Sylvia’s soul food restaurant to the Midtown neighborhood.
The $1.6-million project will convert the ground floor of Manhattan Casino on 22nd Street South into a branch of the Harlem restaurant renowned for its southern-style cuisine. A groundbreaking ceremony for the project city officials hope will help rejuvenate Midtown’s economy is planned for Thursday. The restaurant could be ready to open by mid-October.
Once a thriving nightspot where jazz and R&B legends such as Duke Ellington and Ray Charles performed, the Manhattan Casino was closed for almost 40 years. The city invested close to $3 million to renovate the building in 2005, with plans to open a restaurant. The building was left unfinished and has been used for community events since 2011, but the city has never been able to land a tenant.
City leaders hope Sylvia’s will help spur economic growth in the surrounding low-income neighborhood.
“It’s going to have a major impact,” said Councilman Wengay Newton, whose district includes Midtown. “I’m glad it is coming to fruition, but it has been a very, very long time.”
The redevelopment of the Manhattan Casino building was part of a reinvestment in Midtown after the 1996 riots in the neighborhood, with more than two dozen private and public projects completed in the past 25 years - representing a total investment of more than $200 million.
That included a Sweetbay store, Pinellas County Jobs Corp. training facility and the Carter G. Woodson African-American History Museum.
Rejuvenation efforts suffered a setback in February when Sweetbay closed its store down the street from the Manhattan Casino because of low sales.
Development of Sylvia’s is being financed by Urban Development Solutions, a nonprofit group that partnered with the city to develop Tangerine Plaza, where Sweetbay rented space.
Founder and CEO Larry Newsome said he hopes to name a new tenant for that store within 90 days.
For the Sylvia’s project, Urban Development has agreed to a 50-year lease and will pay the city $36,000 annually and 5 percent of all sales in excess of $1 million. The city is contributing $300,000 toward conversion of the ground floor.
Sylvia’s is named after founder Sylvia Woods, a former beautician who opened the Harlem restaurant in 1962. Her mother mortgaged her farm to help her daughter buy a luncheonette, according to the restaurant’s website. Woods died last year, but the restaurant is still run by family members.
The Midtown restaurant would be the first one to be opened outside Harlem since one in Atlanta closed. Another location is planned for Fort Myers, Newsome said.
Early renderings of the restaurant produced include a few nods to the Manhattan Casino’s musical legacy, with pictures of Duke Ellington and a vertical sign with the restaurant’s name surrounded in lights, similar to the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem.
“Sylvia’s has a history; it’s a meeting place,” said Newton. “It has exclusivity that will bring people out.”