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Midtown Walmart off to a good start, officials say

ST. PETERSBURG

Yanira Avezuela pushed a radio into her back pocket and slipped in an earpiece under her dark, crimped hair. A green elastic key chain was wrapped around her right arm and on the counter in front of her was a PalmPilot linked to each checkout lane.

A fellow manager studied the schedule and listed who was off, who was late, who had called out. Customers streamed through the electric sliding doors at Midtown's new Walmart and the checkout lines grew. Her eight-hour shift just beginning, Avezuela took a deep breath.

Before the store's late-January opening, she was hired as a part-time employee, earning $8.35 an hour. She's now a customer service manager, a promotion that came with a small raise and a 38-hour work week. Avezuela, a mother of two, has lost 25 pounds.

"So much stress," she said, before quickly noting it's a good stress. "I wouldn't change anything."

For Midtown, the honeymoon with its neighborhood grocer has yet to end, and store and city officials say business is off to a promising start.

Walmart took over a building that had been empty for almost a year after Sweetbay Supermarket closed, leaving an already poor area without a neighborhood market. At the time, then-Mayor Bill Foster said he was shocked by the closure, though supermarket officials insisted they had warned him of the troubles.

New Mayor Rick Kriseman's staff has vowed to closely monitor the health of the new store.

"We definitely are making sure that we stay in close contact," said Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, the city's director of urban affairs.

Gaskin-Capehart, who knows manager Carl Spady on a first-name basis, shops often at the store and finds the parking lot almost always full.

"It speaks to the need," she said.

Walmart officials, she added, have told city staff that the store is hitting its revenue targets every week except the last one of the month.

The challenge, Spady said, has been spreading awareness. Employees continue to meet customers shopping there for the first time who only recently learned of the opening.

To better serve the local market, the store will begin to scale back on items that haven't sold well — like healthy frozen meals and gluten-free options — and bring in others that are in high demand, like organ meats and collard greens.

Spady, who commutes each day from his home in Tampa, has been with Walmart for about eight years. He was with Target, but moved because Walmart offered him more of a chance to do the kind of work he's doing now.

Spady took the Midtown store understanding the challenge but intent on making it succeed. He was in contact with the local Boys & Girls Club and the Pinellas County Urban League before the store even opened.

Avezuela, 32, was among those employees who lost her job when Sweetbay closed. Internal theft, she said, had been rampant there and was among the reasons the store struggled.

Spady said Walmart has caught just one employee stealing from the store.

At the community's request, Spady said they hired a third-party security company to ensure customers feel safe. They now pay off-duty St. Petersburg police officers instead.

In the past three months, officers have filed 31 reports in response to calls for service at the shopping center's address.

As was hoped, Walmart's presence has reinvigorated businesses in Tangerine Plaza at 22nd Street and 18th Avenue S. Business at Meme's Beauty Gallery had dropped by more than 60 percent in 2013 but has begun to recover.

"It's picked up well," said Nikita Lane, the salon owner's sister. "Now she's getting walk-ins."

The clientele has grown so much that the salon may hire new stylists.

Employees at a nearby Chinese restaurant and a clothing store also said they've had boosts in foot traffic, and revenue, in recent months.

Such collateral effects didn't surprise Spady.

"We're trying," he said, "to be a store of the community."

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

Midtown Walmart off to a good start, officials say 05/10/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 13, 2014 11:55am]
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