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Overhaul of troubled grocery store sign of Heights revival

TAMPA HEIGHTS - Neighbors for years complained about vagrants hanging out at Lee's Grocery Store. "No Loitering" signs were posted outside the building and people offered widely different opinions about the shop's value to the neighborhood. Many said it was a magnet for drug dealers. Those rallying to revitalize the city's oldest neighborhood said the store gave the neighborhood a bad reputation. The store's defenders — mostly long-time residents — said they had nowhere else to buy food staples. The Tampa City Council got involved in the 1990s but eventually backed away from threats to revoke the store's alcohol permit. Still, complaints continued during the next 10 years.
It could be intimidating, walking past a rough-looking crowd hanging out at the store's doorway, residents said. The grocery's inventory dwindled mostly to cigarettes, single cans of malt liquor and lottery tickets. "It was uncomfortable," said Lindsey Cox, a University of South Florida student who commutes by bicycle. Catcalls as she pedaled past were common. "The grocery store was kind of breeding trouble."   * * * * *   In the past four months Lee's has become a destination for neighbors and people outside the neighborhood who want to share a craft beer, a stone-baked pizza and conversation. All that remains is the name – Lee's Grocery Store. It was so iconic, said new owner Jennifer Hatchcock, that changing the name didn't make sense. She bought the 115-year-old store and a duplex next door, at the corner of Frances and Central avenues, about five years ago as an investment. She was a University of South Florida graduate with a degree in finance. But working for a large firm didn't interest her. At age 24, Hatchcock opened her own real estate investment company. She also works as a bartender at The Independent, a popular European-style beer garden in Seminole Heights. "I had always considered buying a property like this with the hope in the future I could make it what I wanted," she said. She had to wait out the store's tenant who had a 15-year lease. Last year, when he got into financial trouble, Hatchcock evicted him. With her partner, Troy Taylor, she set about gutting and remodeling the store. "It was so cluttered and nasty," Hatchcock said. "We broke it down to the bare bones." A cigarette-filled cabinet that blocked a front store window was tossed. Other windows were cleaned so sunlight streamed inside. A deli counter was taken out. The kitchen was upgraded and a stone-oven installed. Tile flooring and a color-speckled drop ceiling were added. Refrigerators were stocked with craft beers and soda. Gourmet coffee and pizza went on the menu. WiFi was installed. Dozens of album covers of bands such as Oingo Boingo, The Police and Grandmaster Flash cover interior walls that once were bare. A turntable is ready to spin LP (long-play) platters. Pizzas were named for album songs. Dead Man's Party is piled with pepperoni, sausage, meatballs, ham and bacon. Minor Threat is vegetarian mix of pesto sauce, mushrooms, spinach, jalapenos and feta cheese. Craft beers are national and international brands with one local brand – Cigar City Brewing Co.   * * * * *   Lee's is becoming what Hatchcock wanted it to be. She lives next door and has a plot in the Tampa Heights' community garden just a block away on Francis Avenue. "I loved all the houses along the street," Hatchcock said. "It looked like a great place to have a neighborhood space. That's really what it has become, a neighborhood hangout." Stone benches and tables bring customers outdoors. More landscaping will be added soon to screen the patio from the street and create a beer garden atmosphere. Lee's wants to help improve the reputation of Tampa Heights, said Taylor, who also bartends at The Independent. "It gives people a chance to come into the neighborhood and say, 'I like it; this is where I want to live.'" Members of the Tampa Heights community garden meet at Lee's as does a fathers' group from Lee Elementary School. Lee's has sponsored teacher appreciation events, a Christmas party and golf tournaments. On days when members of the Tampa Heights Jr. Civic Association hold neighborhood clean-ups, Lee's donates pizza. "We really want to get involved," Hatchcock said. The store is "very much community-oriented now," said Lena Young-Green, president of the junior civic association. "We are very pleased with what has happened." Nearby are more signs of the neighborhood's rebound. The Sanctuary Lofts is a mix of offices and loft apartments inside a restored historical church. A second historical church is being converted to a community center. Bungalows in the area have been repaired and are attracting new residents. Redevelopment appears to be taking hold despite a bad economy that stalled The Heights, a $500 million mixed use project planned along the river at North Highland and North Ola avenues. The grocery store, according to city records dates to 1897. It has been a "classic corner grocery store in some capacity or another," said Thom Snelling, the city's director of planning and development. Because it is within Tampa Heights' historic district, any future alterations or expansions would come under city review, he said. The recent changes in the area including Lee's, Snelling said, are "another example of the positive influences in the overall neighborhood. It has been a 180-degree turn." City officials say the Heights' project eventually will be revived. But in the meantime, Snelling said, "There are residual effects that signal that Tampa Heights is a place where people want to be living again."

ksteele@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7652

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