ST. PETERSBURG — Neighborhoods in the southernmost section of the city have grown increasingly impatient about the bleak, expansive Skyway Plaza shopping center that’s been largely vacant since 2013.
That was the year the Sweetbay supermarket closed, along with others in the Tampa Bay area. Brixmor Property Group, owner of the 10-acre shopping center at 62nd Avenue S and Dr. Martin Luther King Street, continues to collect rent for the empty grocery store under a contract that extends to 2020.
Neighboring residents, who have prodded the city since the 46,803-square-foot supermarket was shuttered, now are collaborating to stimulate interest in the forlorn shopping plaza.
On Saturday, they’ll host a food truck rally designed to highlight community spirit and demonstrate a potential to draw businesses to the site that boasts 12,205 residents within a one-mile radius and 46,736 within three.
"It’s just a way to rally neighborhood support for this project," said Walter Borden, co-president of the Bahama Shores Neighborhood Association with Will Michaels, author of The Making of St. Petersburg.
"We’re hoping that this might possibly make people interested in putting a business in the Skyway Shopping Plaza. We have lived with that emptiness for so long," said Barbara Ellis, president of the Greater Pinellas Point Civic Association.
"We are a viable community. We would love to be able to have a place in our community where we could go for a sit-down dinner without having to travel a great distance. Maybe, ideally, it would be great to have a Trader’s Joe’s or a Fresh Market. ... So many of us drive to the north side to Trader Joe’s and Fresh Market," Ellis said.
The Pinellas County Tax Collector’s office is one of the few reasons people visit the shopping center. There have been rumors that it, too, might be closed. Last week, spokeswoman Andrea DiFonte put those to rest, saying the office is working to extend its lease at Skyway Plaza.
"We recognize the importance of this office location to the South St. Petersburg community, and we intend to continue serving our customers at this location," DiFonte said.
Lakewood Estates resident Sheena Qualles-De Freece, a retired bank vice president from New Jersey, discovered the shopping center near Bay Vista Fundamental School three years ago, when she went to register her car.
"It’s only seven minutes from my house. I would love to see it revitalized," she said of Skyway Plaza, adding that she’s heard people say they would like to see it get "some type of food store" and even hold a local market day once a month.
"A breakfast restaurant there would be really great," Qualles-De Freece added. "It has a lot of potential. It’s a waste for it to sit there like that. It’s not good for the neighborhood."
There’s also a Dollar Tree, a Chinese take-out, hair salon, clothing store, laundry, Metro PCS cell phone store, Amscot and Rent-A-Center. Much to the dismay of neighborhood leaders, a donation box near to the parking lot’s entrance usually is surrounded by discarded furniture and other detritus of people’s lives.
Gone are a Walgreens, barber shop, dry cleaners and St. Petersburg Police Department resource center.
Ken Conklin grew up in the area and remembers three thriving shopping centers.
"I know in the 1980’s and 1990’s, those shopping centers were booming," said Conklin, a member of the group from Bahama Shores, Lakewood Terrace, Lakewood Estates, Bayou Highlands and Greater Pinellas Point organizing the food truck rally.
"When you look at Pinellas Point, there are not a lot of options. You’re pretty much stuck with Publix," said Borden who lives a mile from the shopping plaza.
In fact, Skyway Plaza is a short drive from two Publix stores, one rebuilt in 2016 in the renovated Bay Pointe Plaza on 34th Street S, another shopping center owned by Brixmor.
In 2017, the Urban Land Institute —- an organization of professionals with specialties such as real estate, economic development, infrastructure and city planning — issued a report outlining strategies to revitalize the shopping center. The city and Brixmor split the $18,000 cost for the study.
"Smaller service-oriented retail" were among the study’s suggestions as being "more likely to succeed" at the site. It said Brixmor should improve curb appeal and increase security and "be open minded about non-traditional retail in the short-term and alternative uses in the long-term."
ULI also suggested that St. Petersburg consider streetscape improvements along 62nd Avenue S that would include drainage, sidewalks, a tree canopy and bike paths.
But the city appears to be waiting for Brixmor to make the first move.
"I think if there was a redevelopment of the site, or if Brixmor decides to revamp the shopping center, we would take a look on the cityside of how we could complement that," said Gary Jones, senior planner in the city’s economic development department. "We would take a look at partnership opportunities, including streetscape."
In the short term, the city has made a $1,000 guarantee to the 10 businesses participating in the food truck rally. Jones said a guarantee is often required for large food truck rallies. Meanwhile, the city is also promoting the shopping center as a place where businesses can relocate, he said.
"Brixmor, they have partnerships in connection with national retailers and we have contacts with local retailers. Between the two of us, we are hoping that we can get a mix of national and local retailers," Jones said.
Brixmor spokeswoman Kristen Moore said the company is donating the use of the shopping center’s common area for the rally.
"The hope is that the community will turn out in large numbers and the event will be very successful," Jones said.
If it is, Borden said, there could another in September.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.