Sunday, December 17, 2017
Business

Tampa neighborhood wants to block Family Dollar from opening

TAMPA — A looming neighborhood threat was posted on Facebook and within about an hour, more than 100 people had signed up in protest. Days later, the number grew to 500.

Rumors of a Family Dollar store headed to Seminole Heights had gone viral. "OMG! Not another one! Go away, Family Dollar. We don't want or need you," read one post.

The neighborhood had worked hard over the past decade to create an identity where independent businesses are encouraged and historic preservation was part of the culture. A national discount chain store seemed to be a step backward to many, so a meeting to fight Family Dollar was convened Sunday at the Refinery.

An award-winning restaurant started by neighborhood chefs, the Refinery prided itself on its use of local ingredients. "Local — The new black," read a poster in the window of one remodeled bungalow.

Nearly 70 people crowded in and began sharing what they knew. They heard from a business owner inside a white warehouse at 5100 N Florida Ave., that she was told to vacate by September. Some people had spoken to a real estate agent, property owners, and company representatives who told them a Family Dollar was on the way. People had heard the chain had paid four times the building's value — though records of the transaction couldn't be found with the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser and clerk's office. Some heard the company didn't need to go through any city hearings because of a business-friendly loophole.

Brows furrowed and pints of microbrews, iced tea and Pabst Blue Ribbon cans were sipped. A glass of white wine was in one man's crossed arms. The group was young and old, but its one similarity became starker when Stephanie Roberts, the only African-American, walked in.

"Forgive my ignorance," she said. "But what's the real reason we don't want the Family Dollar? Is it aesthetics?"

"Yes," the crowd responded.

"Is it the people?" she asked.

"Yes," the crowd replied.

"What kind of people is that?" she asked.

Michelle Baker, an owner of the Refinery, headed off the conversation.

"I think everyone has their own reasons," she said.

But what were those reasons? And which ones could this group of grass roots activists agree upon to galvanize Tampa's largest neighborhood into a unified force?

The question hung in the air: What fits in Seminole Heights?

• • •

Tampa's first neighborhood in 1911, Seminole Heights began as a 40-acre development 3 miles north of downtown and has grown to more than 15,800 people. It became a neighborhood populated by craftsman bungalows, which many young professionals and families renovated over the past decade. Seminole Heights began transforming into a place that was different from the modern suburbs on Tampa's edges. It also separated itself from neighborhoods such as Hyde Park and its chain boutiques and million-dollar homes. If South Tampa was pop music, Seminole Heights was indie music.

That became clear with each prominent locally owned business that moved onto Florida Avenue over the past decade, including Cappy's Pizza, the Independent bar and the Microgroove record store.

In contrast, Family Dollar, based near Charlotte, N.C., operates more than 7,000 stores across the United States. The chain planned to open as many as 500 new stores this year, the Charlotte Observer reported.

Just as many in Seminole Heights fear, one of those is slated for 5100 N Florida Ave., said Bob McDonaugh, Tampa economic opportunity administrator. He confirmed that a Family Dollar developer has bought the site and will not need to go through city hearings to redevelop the property because improvements planned to the building will cost less than 50 percent of its value.

"They're developing it within their rights," McDonaugh said. "Retailers basically go by demographics. Apparently, Family Dollar believes it can add something to that neighborhood that they can be successful in."

The real estate agent linked to the property declined to comment. A Family Dollar national spokeswoman did not return a request for information.

Other communities have also protested the stores, including Palm Harbor, where the Pinellas County Commission killed a zoning change in July after residents' concerns about traffic.

In Seminole Heights, three Family Dollars exist within 2 miles of where the chain is eyeing.

"We have that market represented fully in this neighborhood," Baker said. "How many do we really need?"

Baker and her husband, who live in Seminole Heights, opened the Refinery in 2010 and have always wished for a local specialty market on the strip. Veronica Vellines, owner of the Independent, said a Panera Bread was about the only chain she could stomach. She worried her property value would decrease.

"I serve some of the best beers in the world," she said, "and for people to get to my place, you have to go by? It's going to detract and discourage others from investing in the neighborhood."

Ferrell Alvarez, editor and publisher of Local Dirt, a magazine that features local farmers and restaurants that believe in the "slow food movement," called Tampa an "Outback-owned city." He was referring to the ubiquitous national steak house whose parent company is based in the city.

"We're trying to turn Seminole Heights into what Tampa isn't," said Alvarez, also executive chef of Harbour Island's Cafe Dufrain.

Big box retailers suck money out of the community, he said. His opposition had nothing to do with the issues Roberts had suggested.

"I actually wanted to pull her aside because she saw it as almost racial in tone," Ferrell said. "It's not racial in tone."

• • •

Roberts felt split. She has lived in Southeast Seminole Heights for about a decade and agreed with many about corporate chains. She loves Seminole Heights' "small-town feel." But she also viewed concerns about "traffic" and "loitering" as code words for minorities and the lower classes. Any business would bring in traffic, she noted.

Too many Family Dollar stores?

"If that's the case, Starbucks shouldn't be here either," she said. (Three Starbucks lie within 5 miles of the contested site.)

As the community meeting pressed on, a woman became aware that others might also interpret the protest similarly. She said mission statements needed to be carefully crafted to not include any "isms."

The group agreed to put up yard signs. One woman pledged to picket. They talked about creating a phone tree and talking points. Send people door to door, they said. Someone suggested a petition.

A website appeared: nofamily dollar.com.

"Welcome to a website whose sole purpose is to let residents of Historic Seminole Heights in Tampa know about a development deal to put another discount box store 'Family Dollar' in the middle of our community, affecting residential property value, and our efforts to encourage development that fits the historic neighborhood."

It did not specify exactly what that was.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.

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