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John Romano: Midtown needs a grocery store to continue progress

There are other stores on other streets.

That's the argument, right? Why should anyone cry about the doors closing over here when there are still groceries to be sold over there?

These are fair questions and they deserve legitimate answers. And so Darryl Rouson begins by pointing a finger at the dilapidated houses that no longer exist.

There were eight of them back then. Lined up on Queensboro Avenue like a contagious rash. Dirt yards, empty bottles, discarded condoms and all-too-eager crack dealers.

The state representative turns now and points across the street. There was a pool hall over there. A few more abandoned homes. And let's not forget the prostitutes.

Rouson says all of this while standing in the parking lot of an inviting shopping center that includes a restaurant and a cellular phone store. Trees line the road, and a bank is just a stone's throw away. You still want to know why this Sweetbay Supermarket represents something special to this Midtown neighborhood?

Just look around.

"This place changed lives. That's not hyperbole," said Rouson. "Some of the folks employed in there couldn't get employment elsewhere because of the lack of adequate and safe and efficient public transportation. They can walk here for a job. They can walk here to get their groceries. That's huge.

"The stuff that was going on just a half-block away is gone now. The blight has been taken away. Property values have gone up. These are measurable differences in this community, and we can't turn back now."

In one sense, this Sweetbay is no different from dozens of others. The parent company announced last week that it was shutting down more than 30 underperforming stores, including 22 in the Tampa Bay area.

This is capitalism in all of its ruthless glory. Walmart is cheaper. Publix is fancier. Sweetbay got squeezed in the middle.

And yet something will be lost if these shelves are allowed to go bare. For this is still a fragile neighborhood, and this building continues to represent a greater ideal.

Even if some of the customers have been lost to larger grocery chains down the road, there remain economic and quality-of-life components unique to this building.

"I have a heck of a lot of pride in this store. We all do," said Larry Newsome, who helped develop the property through Urban Development Solutions. "The city had worked on getting a store in this community for 15 years before we came up with a solution to make it happen. Believe me, making stores work in a community like this is not easy. These kind of projects are difficult all over the country.

"You can do it, and it does happen around the country. But everybody has to work together to make it happen."

For the longest time, that has been the beauty of this store. It rose out of a collective effort of community leaders, political figures and a far-flung corporate partner.

Rouson acquired a portion of the land through a public nuisance lawsuit, Newsome came on board with real estate expertise, the city provided virtually rent-free land and a $1.35 million loan for construction, and Sweetbay took a risk in a sketchy neighborhood.

Now that Sweetbay has decided to bail, some of the same community leaders and politicians have returned to ask for a reprieve. Newsome said he is open to the idea of making concessions in the rent. Along those lines, Mayor Bill Foster says the city might be able to make it easier for Urban Development by modifying the $1.35 million loan that is scheduled for repayment starting in a couple of years.

Even if Sweetbay's decision is final, a short extension could give the city and community leaders a chance to explore arrangements with other potential tenants.

It's true, there will always be other stores on other streets.

But this has never been a fight about prices or products. It is about a neighborhood in peril. About people in need. About quality of life.

In the end, it is about the heartbeat of a community.

John Romano: Midtown needs a grocery store to continue progress 01/21/13 [Last modified: Monday, January 21, 2013 8:14pm]
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