ST PETERSBURG — More than 100 people stood in line in front of a plaza on 22nd Street South on Monday morning. Some wore jeans and T-shirts, others dressed in business suits. They were waiting to fill out applications for at least 95 job openings an incoming Walmart Neighborhood Store is expected to bring to the area surrounding Tangerine Plaza, the strip mall it will soon inhabit.
Mayor Bill Foster, former mayor Rick Baker and State Representative Darryl Rouson were among elected officials who came to herald the opening of the job application center. To many who stood in line, the lack of jobs in Midtown meant even the lowest wage job openings were a welcome site.
“I’m currently unemployed, never had a job, I really need this job,” said Ayana Robertson, 20. “I would stock, I would push carts, bag groceries. Anything they need me to do.”
The excitement harkened back to 2005, when a Sweetbay grocery store opened at the site. Earlier this year, the grocery chain pulled out of the plaza, citing the store’s lack of profitability. Officials from Walmart and various levels of government said Walmart’s move to put a grocery store in the space vacated by Seweetbay renews hopes of economic revitalization for Midtown, an economically depressed part of South St. Petersburg that has a predominantly African-American population.
“It symbolizes our vision for our community,” said Pinellas County Commission Chair Ken Welch. “One of the measures of progress in your community is how you deal with challenge and adversity. It’s easy to throw darts, it’s easy to criticize, but it’s harder to do the work to get you back on the right track.”
Walmart Neighborhood Stores are smaller than Walmart Supercenter stores, and focus on fresh produce and other grocery items. The company is opening others in South Pasadena and Clearwater in the coming months as well as another Supercenter in Largo. The Midtown store is expected to open in January. A spokesman for the company said that means the store’s workforce will need to be in place by November.
Some potential hires waiting Monday got there as early as 6:30 a.m., even though the application center didn’t open until nearly four hours later. They stood in line even as heavy morning storms blew through the area.
“It’s worth it, though,” said Charlie Smith, 57.
The former construction worker said he hasn’t worked in seven years, since he was laid off from his last job.
“I have bills to pay,” Smith said. “I need a job and I have to eat.”
The application process could take weeks, and it is unclear what the starting wage is for the average worker.
Mayor Bill Foster, who is up for reelection in November, said the jobs component is crucial, but so is the fact that there will be a grocery store in a neighborhood that hasn’t had one in months.
“Today you’re going to go through this application process and at the end of the rainbow there will be jobs, and there will be a grocery store that is open to serve the needs of this community,” he said.
St. Petersburg City Council Chair Karl Nurse, who represents Midtown on the council, said without a grocery store that features fresh produce, areas become food deserts that cannot support much economic development.
“We were in sort of a tough time when this previous store closed because there were a lot of plans for the area,” he said. “We need the anchor on the south end of this corridor to turn this corridor around.”
Ultimately, the city hopes the project can work synergistically with other budding developments in the area to create a cohesive, thriving business district along 22nd Street South, a historically significant corridor known commonly as the Deuces. The new store coincides with the construction of a new St. Petersburg College campus, an incoming craft beer brewery, an LED light manufacturer and the ongoing success of the Warehouse Arts District, all of which are occurring along the thoroughfare.