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How St. Petersburg movers-and-shakers lured Walmart to Midtown

ST. PETERSBURG — For eight years, the Sweetbay Supermarket at Tangerine Plaza stood as a symbol of long-needed progress in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, a victory for public officials who had worked for five years to bring the Midtown community its first grocery store.

Then 10 months ago, pride turned to panic after Sweetbay suddenly announced it was closing the store along with dozens of others in the Tampa Bay area.

In the following days, officials held news conferences and tried to assure residents they would make it right.

Privately, some had doubts.

Grocers have never fallen over themselves to open up shop in that part of town, and the first time around, it took millions of dollars in public money, countless meetings and even a phone call from a former governor.

"I had a fear we couldn't get anyone," said Craig Sher, executive chairman of the Sembler Co. "As a business person, you're going to pick places that are best for your company. And let's be honest — you don't want to go where someone else failed."

People made inquiries. Favors were called in. The game had changed, but the players, for the most part, were the same.

In addition to Sher, former Mayor Rick Baker, businessman and philanthropist Bill Edwards, Midtown developer Larry Newsome, former police Chief and Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis and Mayor Bill Foster and his staff spent the last several months quietly working on a deal to get Walmart interested in the complex at 18th Avenue S and 22nd Street.

And once again, it took a little money, a lot of assurance from public officials and another phone call from a former governor before everything was settled.

During it all, most of the key players stayed mum, even when rumors about Walmart began to swirl this summer. There was a reason for that, they said in recent interviews with the Tampa Bay Times.

"We stayed calm and we kind of went radio silent with everybody," Sher said. "We wanted to do what we do best, which is make these deals happen. . . . Until the ink is dry, you don't celebrate."

• • •

The Midtown Sweetbay was always more than a grocery store.

In 2000, Midtown residents still lacked even the most basic amenities. No bank, no post office, no grocery store. Local leaders and politicians set about to change that.

The city spent $1.4 million to build the plaza on an intersection that had once been home to drug dens. The idea, however, wasn't an easy sell. Grocers weren't keen on opening in a low-income area plagued by crime.

"It's a difficult marketplace. Retailers want to make money," said Sher, whose company helped with construction of Tangerine Plaza. "But if you're going to rebuild a community, you have to start with a grocery store."

So Baker, then mayor, asked former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to make a call to the company that seemed the most interested — Sweetbay, which at that time was Kash n' Karry.

Sweetbay agreed.

After the store opened in 2005, Baker said he and Davis made it a priority to check in often. They were on a first name basis with the store manager. They checked to see how sales were going. They offered advice about which products the community wanted.

"When I left apparently those meetings ceased," said Davis, who has not been shy about criticizing Foster, who fired him in 2011. "It's all about relationships, and we had a great relationship. . . . We should've never lost that store."

The closure has dogged Foster throughout this year's mayoral election. But the mayor said he was as shocked as everyone about the store's closing. He has repeatedly disputed Sweetbay officials' claim that they warned him that the Midtown store was in trouble.

"I don't know if there is anything I could have done differently," Foster said. "It was a corporate decision. It was one of 33 stores. By the time we got to February, it was time to move forward."

Newsome, the plaza's landlord, said that days after Sweetbay's announcement he met with Davis, Baker, and Edwards, Baker's boss.

None of the four men would divulge details of the meeting, but they all said everyone was eager to help. About the same time, community leaders and politicians began calling other grocery chains.

"I always felt that if we negotiated the right deal, we were going to get another grocery store," Newsome said.

Publix wasn't interested, Foster said. Other big grocers also passed.

The mayor didn't know anyone at Walmart. But others did.

Sher has worked with Walmart for years and asked them to consider the project. Baker also again asked Bush to reach out, this time to Walmart U.S. CEO Bill Simon.

After a few meetings, Walmart officials were interested.

The move made sense, officials said. Two years ago, the retail giant announced it would open 300 stores in areas of the country designated as "food deserts." Walmart also liked that there was an existing building, Newsome said.

Edwards donated $300,000 to Newsome's nonprofit company Urban Land Solutions to help with financing and upgrades to the property.

Foster said he sat in on meetings and directed his staff to make the permitting process as smooth as possible for Walmart. Baker, Newsome and Sher praised those efforts.

All three were with the mayor two weeks ago, when city and Walmart officials opened a hiring center for the new Midtown store, which is scheduled to open in January.

"It doesn't matter who gets credit and as long they open on time," Foster said recently in his office.

Sher and others say they are optimistic that Walmart won't meet the same fate as Sweetbay.

Walmart's low-cost strategy will meld better with the neighborhood, they said. Plus, Walmart, which agreed to a 13-year lease, is paying less rent than Sweetbay. That's made possible by the money Sweetbay had to pay to break its lease, which had 12 years remaining. No one would divulge financial specifics.

"Some people are critical that people didn't read the tea leaves that Sweetbay was going to close," Sher said. "I think that's an unfair criticism. There are no villains here. Everyone pitched in."

How St. Petersburg movers-and-shakers lured Walmart to Midtown 10/21/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 12:01am]
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