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Seminole Heights' protest of Family Dollar repeats classic tale of fitting in

NO FAMILY DOLLAR, the signs in front yards and storefronts across Seminole Heights say in big red letters — in case you were wondering how some residents of Tampa's first neighborhood feel about the discount box store about to appear in their midst.

This is a classic tale of an urban neighborhood on the comeback, and the complicated questions of what fits and what does not that come with it.

At its best, Seminole Heights is historic bungalows with generous porches lovingly restored on oak-shaded streets, some as sweet as any in swankier Hyde Park.

At worst, it's ugly thoroughfares with old car lots behind rusty security fences.

For urban pioneers, it's about beating back what gives city living a bad name — the crime and the blight — and preserving the best of it. It's knowing your neighbors even if you don't live out in far-flung suburbs behind a gate and a guard shack where the houses come in varying shades of beige.

When the news got out about low-price Family Dollar's plans to open on Florida Avenue — the sixth within 3 miles, by the way — hundreds in Seminole Heights protested on Facebook, city officials got an earful, and two local businesses even tried to buy the property.

No dice. Another Family Dollar, coming soon.

So why wouldn't you want a business in your business district? The arrival of Starbucks, also not locally based and also a chain, was cause for much celebration and seen as a sign of progress for the neighborhood.

Objections to Family Dollar are legion: It doesn't fit the historic feel or the cool business vibe of an award-winning restaurant, funky bar in an old gas station, a vintage shop. But in this righteous criticism, some picked up an unfortunate undertone: Was this partly about keeping "them" out, the less affluent who patronize walkable stores? Were "isms" in play, as in class, and race?

Because in a neighborhood where diversity is part of the charm, the definition of desirable business is bound to vary.

In my own neighborhood near Seminole Heights, we had a perplexing push to get rid of a businessman who sold colorful clothing from an open-air stand in a parking lot. To me this seemed the kind of thing that made us interesting, but to others it was clearly something to be cleaned up. Improved, if you will.

For the record in the Family Dollar argument, the peeling paint and general seediness of the store I pass regularly on Columbus Drive — less than 2 miles from the one opening soon — does not exactly inspire confidence. (A Family Dollar spokesman tells me they're working on that.)

And for the record, imagine the truckload of smelling salts you'd have to import if the plan were to open a Family Dollar in the more rarified South Tampa air.

If there is good news, it's this: Family Dollar met with members of the neighborhood to talk landscaping, signs and fitting in — "as good an outcome as you're going to get," says Susan Long of the Seminole Heights business guild.

Now no one has ever asked me for business advice, but here's some: If I were Family Dollar, I would make sure things stayed up to snuff, not a blade of grass too high or a peel of paint. Because this is a neighborhood of hardscrabble history and comeback chops that is, in case you hadn't noticed, not shy about saying what they think.

Seminole Heights' protest of Family Dollar repeats classic tale of fitting in 08/14/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 9:08pm]
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