LARGO — Although the intersection of Ulmerton and Starkey roads is a busy crossroads that sees about 80,000 cars a day, it has looked run-down in recent years.
The northeast corner had a cheap-looking strip club and a pool hall. The southwest corner was a weedy vacant lot for a long time.
But now Ulmerton and Starkey is the newest battleground in Pinellas County's escalating convenience store wars. An intersection that sees so many time-crunched commuters has lured deluxe convenience store chains to stake out spots on three of its four corners.
On the northeast corner, the former Badda Bing Gentlemen's Club has given way to a Thorntons convenience store and gas station. The Kentucky-based chain, known for its coffee, sandwiches, salads and doughnuts, is branching out from the Midwest and moving into Florida.
On the southwest corner, workers have started installing underground fuel tanks for a Wawa gas station/convenience store, to be followed by a Walmart Neighborhood Market next door.
"We just broke ground. We expect to open the stores sometime in January," said Carlos Yepes, president of Belleair Development Group, which owns the 11-acre site. "There's about 80,000 cars a day at that intersection. That's a lot."
A Pennsylvania-based chain, Wawa is popular in the Northeast for made-on-site hoagies, baked goods and gourmet coffees 24/7. Get used to the name: Wawa intends to have 100 stores in the Orlando and Tampa Bay markets within five years.
Walmart Neighborhood Markets are grocery stores with a smaller footprint than the supercenters. They're clustered in the South, with more than 40 in Florida.
The developer is still seeking tenants for a bank building and 20,000 square feet of retail space that will be built.
To make way for the grocery store, crews will soon demolish the large vacant building at 9020 Ulmerton Road where the Ulmerton Cinema 9 once operated. The $1-a-seat theater closed in 1999.
"We tried to blow it up," Yepes said half-jokingly of the movie theater. He thought that perhaps a film or television production company might have wanted to pay to demolish the building with explosives, but state transportation officials wouldn't grant permission.
"The DOT wouldn't let us. It's too close to the road," Yepes said. So the building will be demolished in a less dramatic way.
The southeast corner of Ulmerton and Starkey has a large Rally station and convenience store with freshly made sub sandwiches, smoothies and a sit-down dining area.
The intersection's northwest corner is the longtime home of Great Bay Distributors, one of Florida's largest beer distributors. It has been there since 1969.
"When my father purchased this land, he thought it was at the end of nowhere," said Ron Petrini, Great Bay's president. "It was a palmetto field. It was like only covered wagons could get out here."
Within the next few years, Great Bay intends to leave its current 20-acre site and move to a new distribution center it plans to build on 96 acres along Interstate 275 in the Gateway area. At that point, the family-owned company will either sell or lease its land at Ulmerton and Starkey.
"We have just outgrown this property," Petrini said. "Thank God we have a business that needs to expand."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.