ST. PETERSBURG — The official word is out: Walmart is going into the Midtown space that Sweetbay vacated in February.
The retail giant announced Monday that it will operate a "neighborhood market," meaning groceries and pharmacy only. The store, at the Tangerine Plaza at 22nd Street and 18th Avenue S, should open in January and expects to employ up to 95 people.
The 39,000-square-foot store will be welcomed by area residents, many without cars, who have been taking one or two buses to buy groceries and medicine or going without.
The deal also bodes well for St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who has been criticized for being unable to prevent Sweetbay from leaving and not recruiting a new grocery store to replace it. He is in a tight re-election campaign against Rick Kriseman.
The city spent $1.4 million in public money to build Tangerine Plaza, where the community's only supermarket opened in 2005. Urban Development Solutions, headed by Larry Newsome, is the shopping center's landlord.
Walmart will host a news conference with local officials on Oct. 7 to open a temporary hiring center at 1201 22nd St. S. Applications for both full-time and part-time jobs will be accepted from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Interested applicants may also apply online at careers.walmart.com.
Bill Edwards, mortgage magnate and increasingly the city's white knight, was praised by Foster and others at a Monday afternoon news conference for playing a key role in securing Walmart. He donated $300,000 to the nonprofit Urban Development Solutions, according to former mayor Rick Baker, president of the Edwards Group.
Of that, $50,000 will finance upgrades to the shopping center including the already resurfaced parking lot, and $50,000 will be seed money to start a marketplace where about 10 community entrepreneurs will lease space and sell goods. The biggest chunk, $200,000, goes into a building reserve fund that will allow UDS to meet the criteria needed to refinance its debt and make a payment of around $5 million due in February, Newsome said.
Foster said he assured Walmart the permitting process for its renovation of Tangerine Plaza will be streamlined so it can stay on schedule to open in January.
"You want to do a midnight concrete pour you can do it. You want to do an inspection at 3 a.m., I'll be there in my hard hat," he recounted.
In January, Sweetbay was lambasted by politicians and community activists when the grocer announced it was breaking its lease and closing the Midtown store. But as they gathered in front of the empty store to dub Walmart as the community's savior, there was praise for Sweetbay as well.
"The reason Walmart is coming really is because Sweetbay came in the beginning," Newsome said. He declined to say how much Sweetbay paid to compensate for breaking its lease but considered it fair.
"Sweetbay was okay, but God always has something better in the bush," said community activist Theresa "Momma Tee'' Lassiter. "Thank you, Walmart."
The nearest Walmart is just a mile away at 3501 34th St S.
Within minutes of Walmart announcing the store via a news release, Kriseman sent out a statement praising the retailer but criticizing Foster for a lack of leadership on the issue.
"The residents of Midtown should not have been without a grocery store at Tangerine Plaza for this long," he said. "Sweetbay officials warned Mr. Foster about their struggling Midtown store nearly a year before the company made a formal announcement. As mayor, I would have begun the process of recruiting another grocery store that same day."
Foster questioned how Kriseman knew when he learned the store was struggling and said he had no prior knowledge before the closing was announced.
"This is a great event for the people of St. Petersburg and the people of Midtown,'' he said. "A little rain and negativity isn't going to take away from that. If this were politically driven don't you think there would have been an announcement before the primary?"
Baker, who has withheld an endorsement of either candidate, gave Foster a hearty handshake and pat on the arm at the news conference. Asked later if this meant he was supporting him for mayor, Baker said it was not a political event and he wasn't making an endorsement yet. He did describe Foster as a "key player" in the negotiations with Walmart and other retailers that started in early March.
Henry Eng, 64, who lives nearby, wants to be first in line when the Walmart employment center opens in October. "I'm almost retired, but I don't have enough to retire on," he said. "I am ready for them to start hiring."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected]