Thursday, December 14, 2017
Business

Sweetbay closures will cost more than 200 Pasco jobs

HUDSON — Maria Cogley has been shopping at the Sweetbay Supermarket at State Road 52 and Little Road for years.

"Since it was a Kash n' Karry," said the 37-year-old mother of two. "I was stunned when I found out they were closing."

Cogley was among the customers who reacted with disappointment upon learning that their favorite grocery store was among the 33 in Florida that would be closed in about three weeks. The company announced closings late Wednesday at two other west Pasco locations and one in Zephyrhills as part of an effort to shed "under-performing stores" and streamline operations. The closings are estimated to cost the county between 200 and 240 jobs.

Company spokeswoman Nicole LeBeau said employees at the affected stores would be encouraged to apply for any open positions at remaining locations. Severance also will be offered to eligible full- and part-time employees.

Ken Russ, vice president of the Pasco Hernando Workforce Board, said his staff has already started to reach out to the stores to offer job placement services to laid-off employees.

"We have a lot of labor market information for these people," Russ said.

That didn't console Mike Romeo. "I won't shop there again," said Romeo, 65, a retired construction superintendent. "I think it's lousy the way they did the people there. The food can rot for all I care."

Romeo, who said he has friends who work at the Hudson location, said store officials telephoned them Wednesday night and told them to arrive early Thursday. They were then told of the closing, which is expected to take place by mid-Febrary.

"They could have given them at least a couple of months' warning," said Romeo, who plans to transfer his prescriptions to nearby CVS. He said the employees, who were quick to offer helpful hints and suggest better medicines, "are just good people."

Hurschel Nolen, 65, said the closing will be especially tough on his 94-year-old mother, who was able to drive herself to the store because it was nearby and didn't require her to change lanes.

"I'll probably have to take her shopping now," he said.

A Publix and a Sav-A-Lot are close by, but Nolen said Sweetbay had the best groceries, especially its Black Angus beef.

"We're really going to miss it," he said.

Customers weren't the only ones cringing at the news. Business leaders also were unhappy.

"I hate to see anything like that happen at a time we're seeing the beginnings of a turnaround," said Chip Wichmanowski, director of the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce. He noted the irony that the announcement comes "right on the doorstep" of the chamber's annual Business Development Week. "It's a tough business for the grocery industry."

In addition to the human toll, the closings will leave four buildings vacant. The Pasco locations that will close are at:

• 8833 Mitchell Blvd., New Port Richey

• 7431 State Road 54, New Port Richey

• 9017 State Road 52, Hudson

• 7325 Gall Blvd., Zephyrhills

LeBeau said the company leases the locations.

"I don't know if people will be looking to move right into those, but it's something all of us in economic development need to look at," Wichmanowski said.

John Walsh, vice president of the Pasco County Economic Development Council, agreed that efforts need to be made to fill the space.

"It's not good when we bring prospects in and they see closed storefronts," he said.

The good news is that plenty of old supermarkets have become sites for successful businesses.

The Sweetbay on State Road 54 in Land O'Lakes, which closed several years ago when the store moved to a new site, is now about to reopen at a Ross discount clothing store. A old Walmart in the same strip center became a YouFit gym and a Beall's Outlet.

A former Winn-Dixie at Little and Ridge roads is now a Hobby Lobby. In New Tampa, LifePoint Church turned a closed Winn-Dixie into a huge sanctuary.

"You could roll those over into another type of use when the economy turns around and the population begins to concentrate in certain areas again," Walsh said. "There are opportunities. Different industries may be able to go in and find a facility of that size and renovate it. Usually there's a lot of parking."

Times photographer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report.

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