Walk through the Sweetbay grocery store in the Tangerine Shopping Plaza, at 22nd Street and 18th Avenue South. There is row after row of empty shelves, where once there were fresh foods.
Fresh vegetables are nearly gone, as are the meats. The deli is empty. There is no milk.
And, there appears to be no plans by Sweetbay to restock its shelves. The store is quickly going out of business.
On Jan. 16, Sweetbay announced it would close three 'underperforming' St. Petersburg stores by mid-February, part of a consolidation of stores across Florida.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and city leaders gathered outside the Sweetbay today to urge the The Delhaize Group, the parent company of Sweetbay, to reconsider ... or at least come to the table.
"To date, the owner of this store, the landlord of this store has not received official word from Sweetbay of their intent to close (the) store occupying his space," Foster said. "He tried to reach out to corporate headquarters and their response was, ‘the letter’s in the mail.’ And as of this date, he has not received the letter."
Foster said he was watching the evening news on Jan. 16 when he learned that three grocery stores in his city would be closing down in less than a month.
Larry Newsome is the landlord of the building Sweetbay occupies. News of his "underperforming" store was news to him. He said if Sweetbay comes to the table, he should be able to formulate a plan to help mitigate costs.
"What we want them to do is engage with us," Newsome said. "Can we make concessions? What is the gap? What can we do is to make this work? What’s surprising to me is they didn’t come to us in the first place."
Despite Sweetbay's decision, Newsome said he remains committed to providing grocery services in the area.
"Our goal is to have a grocery store in this spot," Newsome said Monday. "That’s our intent to have a grocery store. Hopefully it's going to continue to be Sweetbay. It’s a lot easier to get what you have working than it is to scrap it and start over and start new again."
Foster said that while the goal is to raise community support to keep Sweetbay in its current location, city business leaders and officials have already begun initiating talks with other grocery vendors should Sweetbay not change its mind.
The pending closure of the Midtown Sweetbay struck a nerve with many city, county and state officials, who spoke out Monday against closing the store. There are no other major grocery stores serving this community.
State Rep. Darryl Rouson spoke passionately about what a grocery store means to Midtown, which has struggled for viability during the economic downturn.
"This is more than just four walls and a roof. It’s about the catalyst of economic development," Rouson said at the press conference. "And on this day, when we’re celebrating the legacy of Dr. King, who near the end of his life talked about economic justice, talked about jobs, talked about equalization of privileges and benefits for all communities.
"This building, this is more than just a building. It’s a story of the beginning of growth in a community. We cannot let this building go dark and we will not. And we want to keep (Sweetbay) but they have got to understand our feelings. But come talk to us. Don’t treat us like somebody that has not been a partner in wanting your success."
Foster said the main obstacle right now is getting Sweetbay to come to the table. Sweetbay's silence, however, is not stopping Foster and other city leaders in beginning talks with other grocery vendors.
"The problem is, we don’t know the numbers. Sweetbay is not sharing," Foster said. "This is the first time I heard Sweetbay was losing money at this grocery store. And I had to read that in the newspaper."
The Sweetbay, located 1794 22nd St. S, was supposed to be the spark of redevelopment in Midtown, but leaders fear of another food desert in a community that went without a neighborhood grocery store for more than 30 years.
That store opened in Nov. 2005 after a lengthy city-led effort to bring the Midtown neighborhood its first grocery store. The city invested $1.35 million for the construction of Tangerine Plaza, and additional funds to assemble the land for the site.
According to the city, the project was developed by Urban Development Solutions, who partnered with the Sembler Co. on developing and leasing the plaza. After the city assembled land for the development, it helped orchestrate financing between several partners, including the city, Neighborhood Lending Partners of West Florida, Branch Banking and Trust, and Fifth Third Bank. Financing was also assisted with federal New Markets tax credits.
Midtown has experienced a spurt of redevelopment. City officials say that it is still on the rise. St. Petersburg College will be breaking ground soon on a $14 million expansion that will quadruple the size of its Midtown Campus. SPC will lease city-owned land to construct a 45,000-square-foot building to house its Midtown Educational Center. College officials hope to break ground on the project in summer 2013 and open by the fall semester of 2014, the city said.
For additional Midtown projects, click on the above PDF, which shows past redevelopment successes and future plans for Midtown.
This is "more than just a grocery story," Foster said. "It’s about the dignity of the neighborhood. It’s about the renaissance and revival of the neighborhood ... We can’t allow that to slow down.
"(We need to) get to Sweetbay and tell the story and find out exactly what it is they need to stay open. Feb. 13 is not the date, we must act this week, we must act this day," Foster added.