ST. PETERSBURG — A refrain made popular by a former mayor turned into a chorus Monday, as speaker after speaker celebrated the opening of a Walmart hiring center in Midtown.
"Today is absolutely another great day in St. Petersburg," said former Mayor Rick Baker, adding a superlative to his trademark greeting from his years in office.
Joining him in anticipation of a Walmart Neighborhood Market set to open in late January in a space vacated by Sweetbay Supermarket were Mayor Bill Foster and other officials.
The scene was a far cry from the despair and anger that followed Sweetbay's announcement this year that it would close in Midtown. For the struggling community, which had been without a grocery store until Sweetbay arrived in 2005, the decision was devastating.
While other places fight to keep the big-box store out of their communities, for those who live in Midtown, Walmart's promised arrival is welcomed.
On Monday morning, minutes before the speeches to open the hiring center — a two-minute drive north of the new store at Tangerine Plaza, 1794 22nd St. S — Julia Mizell, 38, hurried along the sidewalk to join more than 100 job hopefuls.
"I'm looking for a closer job," said the telemarketer, who commutes to Clearwater. Last week, her car broke down.
Keyla Pinkney, 36, tried to increase her chances by arriving before dawn. The mother of five works at a laundry, where she barely gets 25 hours a week.
Her friend Mary Cummings, 69, waited on a plastic chair near the door. She works at the same laundry.
"I've been working all my life. I'm trying to make some money," she said.
The growing line of job seekers was evidence of an important fact, said Watson Haynes, president and chief executive officer of the Pinellas County Urban League.
"Folk in this community do want and need jobs," he said.
Community activist Theresa "Momma Tee'' Lassiter said her daughter was among the hopefuls.
"Most of these people don't have a vehicle to drive to Pinellas Park, to Largo or to Tampa for a job," Lassiter said. "Having this Walmart is a big thing for them where they can walk to work."
Walmart officials said they are committed to hiring from the community. Most of the 95 jobs at the new Walmart Neighborhood Market range from cashiers to managers and will be full time. Walmart's average full-time hourly wage in Florida is $12.98 an hour. Most new hires will begin in December.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch thinks the demographics of the area "certainly will" support the new store. "I think it is a wise investment by Walmart," he said.
Larry Newsome of Urban Development Solutions, the shopping center's landlord, said the deal has been in the making since March, in the weeks after Sweetbay closed. On Monday, everyone seemed to be given credit for its replacement, including Foster and the city staff, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, Craig Sher of the Sembler Co., Haynes, Baker and the Bill Edwards Group.
"Many pieces of the puzzle" came together to make the deal possible, Foster said. Monday, though, was "about those in line" for jobs, he said.
Baker placed his arm around Foster in greeting and said Foster "took some hits" for the loss of Sweetbay. "That's what you get when you're mayor," he said.
Baker's boss, Bill Edwards, donated $300,000 to Newsome's company to help secure the Walmart deal, some of which will go to upgrade the center.
"We lost a good store, but we're getting a better one," Newsome said.
Said the store's new manager, Carl Spady: "We will not disappoint you."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.