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Loss of Sweetbay store is harsh blow to Midtown community

ST. PETERSBURG — Midtown's first supermarket opened with a fanfare this poor neighborhood rarely saw: Employees handed out fresh pineapple and purple balloons, and a line of customers snaked out the door.

It was, as a Missionary Baptist pastor had declared, a "new day" for this largely black neighborhood, sacked and burned years earlier in race riots and still scarred by a lack of jobs.

But on Wednesday night, eight years after the grand opening, the 70 employees who staffed the aisles of the Sweetbay Supermarket were called for a meeting. The grocery store was closing, and within 28 days they would be out of work.

"People were totally shocked. There was crying. Some of them just walked out," said Chrissy Roberts, a 26-year-old mother of two who has worked in the deli since it opened. "We're like family here."

Perhaps more than any of the 33 Florida Sweetbays doomed to closure, the supermarket at 1794 22nd St. S was an investment in a community. Built on the graves of crack houses, the store was key to tens of millions of dollars in redevelopment for a neighborhood crippled by neglect.

A local staple serving cash-strapped clientele, the store was labeled by its owners as "underperforming," devoid of the kind of growth or profit shareholders crave. But local leaders and Midtown neighbors say its presence could not be any more important, and they worry about the lasting damage its Feb. 13 closure could leave behind.

"This place means something to the community. It's more than just a supermarket," said Ryan Williams, 36, who walks there for ingredients for his wife Ottesha's cooking. "If you've got a place supplying jobs, why are people going to be out robbing, stealing? All these people who work here, where are they going to go?"

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, who helped acquire the land, said he was "absolutely horrified" by the closure, and former Mayor Rick Baker, who helped steer millions of dollars in Midtown during his term, called it an "outrageous" disappointment. Goliath Davis, a former deputy mayor and liaison to Midtown, called it a major step backward for the entire city.

"We're hitting the all-hands-on-deck button," said Mayor Bill Foster, calling on community leaders to fight to reverse the closure. "This was a decision made on the balance sheet by people who don't even know where St. Petersburg is. I don't think that anyone within that company has any knowledge of the blood, sweat, tears and money that went into this."

When the Sweetbay opened in 2005, Midtown was one of the city's poorest neighborhoods: Five square miles of rundown homes between downtown and Lake Maggiore. Food here was sold in corner markets and convenience stores, offering few options at higher prices, and little of it fresh.

But with the opening of Sweetbay one month after Midtown's first post office, in a shopping center next to Perkins Elementary School called Tangerine Plaza, the store was upheld as progress toward basic services for the many residents here who walk or rely on the bus.

There is a full-service pharmacy, a deli and meat counter, and a bakery for decorated cakes. The produce section sells aloe vera leaves and bunches of kale, wicker baskets with 11 different peppers and turnips for 99 cents a pound.

There are aisles for baking spices, baby formula and canned vegetables, and shelves for children's books and school supplies. Near the entrance, employees had pasted together pictures and quotes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his upcoming birthday. Cases offered chocolate hearts for a holiday when the store will have already closed.

With Sweetbay gone, options for food that is healthy and cheap will be few and far between. The closest major grocery, a Wal-mart Supercenter, is more than 2 miles away, a long walk with bags in hand.

On Thursday, employees in their purple store outfits hugged between sweeping floors, stocking freezers and laying fillets of haddock on ice. Most of those who walked out in anger had, in desperation, returned.

"A lot of us have kids. . . . They have families," said Roberts, who planned to begin looking for a job today. "They have to show up."

Long after it empties, the store's closure could continue to weaken the neighborhood. Small businesses in Tangerine Plaza worried what would happen when shoppers looked elsewhere, and local leaders feared it could spook away others looking to Midtown to invest. Many believe the store helped deter crime, with Rouson calling it "an island of safety" and a source of community pride.

"Older people, these young girls that don't have cars, walking to the store with baby carriages: Where are they going to go?" said Frazier Pollard, 52, who shopped at the Sweetbay on Thursday morning as rain began to fall.

"That's a big hole in the south side of St. Petersburg. When you move something like that, all of us are going to have to pay for it."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or dharwell@tampabay.com. Contact Kameel Stanley at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

Loss of Sweetbay store is harsh blow to Midtown community 01/17/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 18, 2013 12:11am]
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