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Walmart is pulling out of St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood

 Shoppers and Walmart employees attend a grand opening ceremony Jan. 29. 2014 for a new store in St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood. On Tuesday, Walmart confirmed the store will close March 3.
[SCOTT KEELER    |    Times]

Shoppers and Walmart employees attend a grand opening ceremony Jan. 29. 2014 for a new store in St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood. On Tuesday, Walmart confirmed the store will close March 3. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — Walmart is closing its Neighborhood Market in St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood, reigniting a 20-year struggle to keep a grocery store in the underserved area.

The city, which just six months ago agreed to spend $2.2 million to purchase the shopping plaza and therefore would become Walmart's new landlord, says it was blind-sided by the announcement and is willing to offer incentives to keep the behemoth retailer where it is.

"In light of the city's pursuit of Tangerine Plaza and our ability to incentivize Wal-Mart's remaining, we are hopeful that they will revisit this decision," Mayor Rick Kriseman wrote in a statement Tuesday.

But he expressed doubt Walmart would reconsider, and was already looking to lure another supermarket to the property — an effort which has been seen as a linchpin to redevelopment of the economically troubled community that lies in the heart of St. Petersburg.

"While I join in the frustration many of our residents will feel, this may be an opportunity to secure a tenant that can successfully self-perpetuate or create an amenity that better serves the wants and needs of the surrounding community,” Kriseman said.

Previous coverage: St. Petersburg City Council agrees to spend $2.2 million to save Midtown's Tangerine Plaza

The 22nd Street South store, which anchors Tangerine Plaza, will close to the public on March 3, with the pharmacy shutting down Feb. 1.

Political and civic leaders have long struggled to find a grocer to serve the neighborhood, which has many residents with limited transportation options. Ever since the race riots in 1996, the city of St. Petersburg has made a vested effort to redevelop this stretch of Midtown in particular.

In his state of the city address last week, Kriseman touted an 8.5 percent drop in the poverty rate in the city's South St. Petersburg Community Renewal Area in which the store is located.

On Monday, Kriseman said he didn't think the loss of Walmart would do anything to reverse the recent trend of falling poverty in Midtown.

Walmart opened its store in 2014, a year after Sweetbay Supermarket pulled out as part of a closure of 30 locations statewide. Last summer, a nearby Walgreens shuttered as well, followed by a pizzeria and beauty supply store.

"(Walgreens) was a staple for many people in that community. That was a huge blow. Then you turn around and in less than a year you have Walmart closing? The imaging and the messaging is that South St. Petersburg is a failure," said Maria Scruggs, president St. Petersburg Branch of the NAACP.

She believes the city should develop the community through education and supporting local small businesses, rather than hoping success will springboard off of a single grocery store location.

"The focus on a grocery store can not be construed as a solution of the development of a community," Scruggs said.

The supermarket giant and the city said they are hopeful that many of the current employees at the Midtown location will be able to transfer to another store. Walmart's Neighborhood Markets typically employ about 95 people.

Walmart wrote that the decision to close is "based on a number of factors, including financial performance and strategic alignment with long-term plans." It did not elaborate on specifics.

Ben Kirby, a spokesman for Kriseman's office, said that the city does not have details on what Walmart had been paying under a previous lease agreement because the city is still under negotiations for a new lease agreement.

Earlier this year, the store made headlines after shoppers reported that Walmart was selling expired baby formula and other goods. Tampa Bay Times reporters also found dozens of expired items on the shelves of different locations in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The expired food was typically found in low-income and ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

The news comes on the same day Walmart announced it would hire about 10,000 new associates across the country and invest $6.8 billion in capital investments in the upcoming fiscal year.

Walmart operates more than 360 Walmart Stores and Sam's Clubs in Florida, and opened 18 stores here in 2016.

Deneen Wyman lives less than a mile from the store and was responsible for the viral Facebook post that exposed the store's expired food, was surprised that Walmart decided to close this particular store.

"It's hard to find a parking space," she said. "I always see people in the lines. It's very seldom that it's slow... I'm starting to think there's something else going on."

Wyman added that she is worried about the impact on residents.

"I'm concerned abut what's going got replace it," she said. "The community needs a community store."

Read more: Shuttered Sweetbay Supermarkets drag down nearby small businesses

The only other grocery option, especially for those without a car, will be the Dollar General about a block away. Wyman said she has her fingers crossed that a Publix or Aldi will move into that space.

Beverly Thomas held two bags of groceries from Walmart on Tuesday morning as she waited at a bus stop right across the street from the store. "This is the closest store nearby," she said.

The other Walmart on 34th Street S, is at least another 25 minutes away by bus or a 45-minute walk, Thomas said.

"This is just awful," Thomas said as she climbed the bus steps. "They promised this one would stay open. Rick Kriseman is a liar."

Amber Mack, 54, calls herself "a Publix girl," but she stops at Walmart, which is closer, when she needs something quick.

"I know a lot of elderly people who walk here," she said.

In the past, Mack has driven home customers in need, but suspects she will start offering rides to other stores.

"That's part of being in a community," she said. "We all have got to help each other."

Times staff writers Sara DiNatale and Charlie Frago contributed to this report. Contact Alli Knothe at aknothe@tampabay.com. Follow @KnotheA.

Walmart is pulling out of St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood 01/17/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 17, 2017 6:17pm]
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