Closing Sweetbay a blow for St. Pete neighborhood's hopes
ST. PETERSBURG - Thursday afternoon, as she held an umbrella over her head to fend off a slight drizzle, 74-year-old Vernell Carter loaded the trunk of her Cadillac with dog food for her Rottweiler, Jasper. Soon, she’ll have to buy Jasper’s food somewhere else. The Sweetbay Supermarket she shops, at 1794 22nd St. S., is among more than 30 stores the grocery chain is closing in Florida. "I think it’s awful," said Carter, a retired factory worker. "I wonder why they are closing it. What’s the reason?" Although Sweetbay customers and employees are bemoaning store closures across the state, losing this one is especially painful for South St. Petersburg residents.When the store held its grand opening Nov. 5, 2005, it was the first supermarket residents in this poor, predominantly black area had ever had. The store also served as an anchor for the then-new Tangerine Plaza, attracting smaller businesses such as a Chinese restaurant and a cellphone store. Businesses had been wary of relocating to the area, now called Midtown, but city officials worked hard to lure the supermarket here after complaints surfaced following two race riots in 1996. One was that the neighborhood didn’t have its own grocery. Since the opening of Sweetbay, which the city helped finance by proffering $1.3 million to put the deal together, other businesses have moved into the area, including a GTE Financial branch and a Dollar General store. A new neighborhood post office also popped up. People here are worried that Sweetbay’s closing may have broader ramifications. "I’ve been talking with individuals from the community who are very upset that we may be losing not only a grocery store but a symbol of renaissance and pride," said Goliath Davis III. At the time, Davis was a deputy mayor in charge of Midtown and helped bring the supermarket to the neighborhood. When it announced the store closings Wednesday, Sweetbay’s parent company, Belgium-based Delhaize Group, said the more than 30 stores being closed in Florida represent about a third of its 105 Sweetbay locations. Nine of the closures are in Pinellas County, seven in Hillsborough and four in Pasco. After the cuts, 30 Sweetbay stores will remain open in Hillsborough, 19 in Pinellas and 11 in Pasco. City leaders and residents seemed flummoxed over the decision to close the Midtown store, which seemed to be doing well. "I think it’s outrageous," said former Mayor Rick Baker, who considers the revitalization of Midtown one of his singular accomplishments. "I think it demonstrates they don’t understand our community, and they need to reconsider their decision." "It’s sad," said Louis Randle, 74, a retired bus driver, as he left the supermarket Thursday. "There’s no other place to go." Many of the supermarket’s patrons in the neighborhood don’t have cars, so it’s going to be difficult for them to shop somewhere else, Randle said. The other businesses in the shopping center also benefited from the supermarket’s foot traffic. And the supermarket employed 73 people, who will now lose their jobs. All told, about 2,000 Sweetbay employees will lose their jobs in Florida. Jamekka Harris, who runs a hair salon in the plaza, said she spotted Sweetbay employees leaving Wednesday night after they were told the store was closing. "The poor people came out there crying last night," she said. As for Harris, she’s worried her rent might go up now that Sweetbay is leaving. She’s also worried crime might increase because Sweetbay covered 60 percent of the cost of having a security guard patrol the shopping center at night. Nadia Alhadri, the owner of My Beauty Supply, a wig shop in the plaza, said business was good after she moved her store there eight years ago. It only dropped off about a year ago because of new competition in the area. Now, though, she doesn’t think she can stay. "It’s already slow," Alhadri said. "When this closes, it’s going to be nothing here." Mayor Bill Foster was at the Sweetbay on Thursday afternoon, talking with the closing manager. Since learning of the shutdowns Wednesday night, he and his staff have been scrambling to find ways to either keep the Midtown Sweetbay open or find another grocer to take over, he said. "We’re at hour 15 of me learning this was happening, and I spent all morning on it," he said. "There’s a lot of information I would like to have." Foster said he was told the Midtown store would close Feb. 13. "We have an extremely short window, and I’m not sure we’ll be able to crack it open," he said. City Council member Wengay Newton, whose district includes the supermarket, said he met Thursday with a Walmart regional manager, trying to find work for the Sweetbay employees losing their jobs. The regional manager has instructed managers at nearby stores to hire as many of the laid-off Sweetbay workers as they can, Newton said.
[email protected] (727) 215-6504 Tribune reporters Christopher O'Donnell and Richard Mullins contributed to this report.