Sunday, January 21, 2018

Vilified by some, Walmart is welcome presence in struggling Midtown

ST. PETERSBURG — The little girl sprinted from the bedroom, her bare feet slapping the cold terrazzo floor. Halting, she looked up at her mother, sitting on a stool in the kitchen.

"Mommy, are you going to work today?"

"Yes," Yanira Avezuela told her daughter, Kassidy Russell. The girl, 5, shrugged.

"Tomorrow, I'm off," said Avezuela, smiling.

"Yay," the girl shouted. Her braids bouncing, she hopped back to the bedroom.

Kassidy's question is one she could not have asked her mother before last month. But at that moment before 9 a.m. Wednesday, a badge hung from Avezuela's bedroom doorknob. Over a green background, it showed her name: "Yanira." Below that: "Cashier." Above it: "Walmart."

"I'm so blessed to have the job that I have," she said. "It could be a lot worse."

She knows it could be worse because not long ago it was, both for her and her Midtown neighborhood. Last February, the Sweetbay Supermarket closed, devastating an already poor community that had for decades suffered from neglect. Dozens of people, including Avezuela, were laid off as the area lost access to its essential source of fresh, reasonably priced groceries.

Then, in late summer, something unexpected happened.

Walmart — perhaps America's most vilified corporation — saved the day.

For months, as protesters across America have accused the retailer of ruining their communities, the residents of Midtown have thanked God because they believe the company rescued theirs. They speak of Walmart in reverential terms, like a generous relative who showed up to offer help in a dark hour.

And the community has good reason to feel that way. The Walmart Neighborhood Market — scheduled to open Wednesday — will employ 105 people. Hundreds of locals without cars will no longer have to take buses or cabs to the nearest large grocer 2 miles away. Residents will stop having to buy milk at $5 a gallon from convenience stores that locals say raised prices after Sweetbay closed. (The Walmart will sell gallons of milk for less than $3.50.)

On that recent morning, Avezuela pulled on black Nikes, khaki pants and a mint green polo before slipping the badge around her neck. She dropped Kassidy off with a neighbor, who for $20 a day babysat the girl when Avezuela worked. She met up with another neighbor who also got a job at the store. Neither had a car, but it didn't matter. Like most of their colleagues, the women lived just a few blocks from their new workplace.

On the walk there, Avezuela smoked a Newport and talked about Tuesday's "VIP" night. She considered whom she might bring. Her daughters, definitely, and maybe a friend. Avezuela smiled. She seemed proud.

• • •

One evening last spring, Leterius Bentley and his friends were chatting beneath a tall oak on Queensboro Avenue when a small group of people in suits approached. They worked for Walmart and asked if the neighborhood would want one of their stores in the building across the street, if locals needed jobs, if they would shop there.

He and his friends were adamant. Yes, they said, to all.

Bentley, 23, is a third-generation Midtown resident. He grew up in a now-orange cinder block house on Queensboro where his grandmother still lives. He remembered the anger and confusion when news broke that the Sweetbay would close.

"We need this," he said of the new Walmart. "They're going to do our neighborhood right."

People here are aware of the corporation's reputation as a place that pays employees meager wages and guts communities of mom-and-pop businesses.

But a low-paying job, they say, is better than no job. Nearly 500 people showed up to a hiring center in Midtown when Walmart invited applicants Oct. 7. And what highly valued independent businesses would the new store harm?

"In some communities, where no alternatives exist, Walmart can be a net benefit," said Chris Fowler, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University who studied the potential impact of a store in south Seattle.

The question to ask, he said, is what could residents access without the Walmart: Fresh fruits and vegetables? Quality meats? Jobs?

The answer, say people in Midtown, is no.

According to a 2011 study, 36 percent of the community lives below the poverty line.

Down the road from Bentley last week, Earnest Brown, 61, sat in a metal chair and read a newspaper. He, too, had lived in the neighborhood for years.

What moved into that empty building — or how people perceived it outside Midtown — made no difference to him.

"Look, we don't care," he said. "Food is food to me."

Walmart's neighborhood markets typically take six weeks to open, but because Midtown is in such dire need, store manager Carl Spady said his staff has done the job in just more than three since taking over the building.

Walmart often succeeds in locations where others failed, but Spady acknowledged security concerns. In the past two years, St. Petersburg police filed 91 reports in response to calls for service at that address. The store will employ additional security, the manager said, but he declined to be specific.

Spady, who lives in Tampa, has worked in retail for two decades and said he had never seen a neighborhood react to an opening this way. For weeks, dozens of people stopped by every day to press their faces against the papered front windows and ask, again, when the store was opening. For some, though, that day won't come soon enough.

Sweetbay's closure crippled other shops in the Tangerine Plaza shopping center. Business at Meme's Beauty Gallery, a salon, dropped more than 60 percent, said owner Jamekka Harris. She fell behind on rent and may face eviction.

Harris had hoped to survive at least until Walmart opened and the foot traffic returned. To save money, she gave up both her health and life insurance.

"Near homeless just to keep this business," Harris said.

Next door, at My Beauty Supply shop, a sheet of paper on the front door last week advertised sales of 25 to 50 percent off.

Owner Nadia Alhadri said she bought the business for $250,000 seven years ago when, thanks to the grocer, the plaza bustled with potential clients. She planned to close by month's end.

"I hope it's going to get better for the people who are going to stay," she said. "For me, it's over."

• • •

At the end of aisle 10 (tea, cereal, coffee, breakfast), a dozen employees huddled to discuss the day's stocking plan. Then Curtis Wilson, a sales floor associate, led a cheer, which began with spelling the company's name — "Give me a W … " — and ended with a series of questions.

"What store is No. 1?" he asked his colleagues.

"Midtown," they yelled back.

At other stores, the answer to that question is not a location but a number. This store isn't like most others, though, and the employees recognize that.

Nearly 80 percent of the staff is black, reflecting the neighborhood's makeup. Three in every four employees, including Wilson, live within walking distance.

Before December, he had been unemployed for 18 months, the longest spell in his adult life. He couldn't afford a car and, struggling to support his 5-year-old son, had moved in with his sister in Midtown. So, Wilson, 38, stood for hours outside the career center that rainy day last fall and applied for everything he could. He called back each day for two weeks until he got hired.

"I say to myself, '2014 is my year,' " he said. "I have faith in Walmart."

So do others: Cashier Leticia Harrell, 38, who was fourth in line at the career center — "I was determined" — because she has no car, a small apartment four blocks away and a 12-year-old daughter; and Celia Lemos, 46, originally from Brazil, who was so happy she got a maintenance job, despite her broken English, that she celebrated at the Cheesecake Factory in Tampa; and Jaylen Gainer, 18, a senior at Gibbs High School who stocks shelves afternoons to stay out of trouble and save up for a silver 2004 Ford Escort.

And Yanira Avezuela, who, after placing new price tags below dried pasta, clocked out at 7 p.m. Wednesday and walked the five-minute path home.

She calls the 625-square-foot apartment on 15th Avenue S her "two-by-four." Kassidy sleeps in a crib, and Avezuela's other daughter, Nerissa Colon, 8, spends each night on a futon that covers a crack in the living room floor.

For now, she works part time and earns $8.35 an hour, about a dollar less than what she made at Sweetbay. If nothing changes, she will make less than $14,000 over the next year. She gets about $400 a month in food stamps, though that will drop because of her job. Nerissa's father, she said, sends her money when she needs it.

For the first time in two years, she paid her $800 monthly rent late in December. She owes about $2,000 to friends and family, but Avezuela is sure she can pay them back soon and life will get better.

"I'm making it now," she said, "thanks to Walmart."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected]

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