ST. PETERSBURG — They met as one in the parking lot of the Sweetbay Supermarket to reassure a community often resigned to defeat.
They will not give up, the politicians and community leaders pledged. Every avenue is being pursued to keep the supermarket and shopping center anchor in place. At the same time — just in case — they are urgently trying to contact other grocery chains to get them to consider the Tangerine Plaza site so Midtown will not be left barren.
"It's important that the community understands that many of the political leaders consider this an important priority," said City Council chairman Karl Nurse, who represents a large portion of Midtown. "The worst thing that can happen is that it closes and we do nothing."
So mid Monday morning, after the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast at the Coliseum, city officials and others made their way to the store at 1794 22nd St. S to lay out their plans and hopes.
A constant refrain was that this Midtown supermarket, which emerged after years of struggle, is much more than a grocery store. "It's about the dignity of a neighborhood," Mayor Bill Foster said. The plan, he said, "is to get to Sweetbay and tell the story."
Sweetbay announced last week that it will shutter 33 stores, including 22 in the Tampa Bay area. The Midtown store, Foster said, will officially close Feb. 13.
But Foster fears the aisles will go dark as soon as shoppers empty the shelves and coolers of meat and produce. Trucks will not deliver new shipments, Foster added.
With the clock ticking, Foster said the community might have less than two weeks to reverse the decision. Foster said none of the other stores slated for closure is the epicenter of redevelopment for a 5.5-square-mile area like Midtown.
Politicians and community leaders decried Sweetbay for not sharing sales' figures for the Midtown store, which has 73 employees. They also lambasted Sweetbay's Belgian parent company, Delhaize Group, for ignoring repeated calls to talk about the store.
No elected official, or the store's landlord, has heard from Sweetbay executives.
Larry Newsome, of Urban Development Solutions, the shopping center's landlord, heard of the planned closing on the news. "All we've heard so far is that a letter is in the mail," Newsome said.
As speakers discussed the importance of keeping Sweetbay, shoppers and employees cheered in the parking lot. A passing driver shouted: "Save our Sweetbay."
"All we're asking is for Sweetbay to work with us," said Urban League president Watson Haynes.
City officials say $1.4 million in public money was spent to build Tangerine Plaza, where the community's only supermarket opened in 2005.
"We cannot let this building go dark," said State Rep. Darryl Rouson, who helped acquire land for the shopping center.
While the closing is an economic development issue, it also is a public health issue, when people are unable to get fresh foods, said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. "One of the things that Martin Luther King fought for was social and economic equality," Welch said.
School Board member Rene Flowers said she shops at the supermarket even though there is another closer to her home. "It would be so hypocritical of me to say, 'Shop at Sweetbay,' and I didn't," she said.
Former Mayor Rick Baker, who helped steer millions of dollars to Midtown during his term, still shops at the supermarket "every few weeks."
"It's a key anchor to the Midtown redevelopment," he said.
Nurse said the city needs "to show that this area is coming back."
"There is good stuff happening or in the works that will lead to a brighter future for folks," he said. "The problem is really a symptom of an area that needs more people, more money, more jobs and so we need to keep working on all of those things.
Neighborhood activist Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter was succinct when discussing the supermarket's closing. "That's a hot disaster," she said. "I do believe that the city needs to work as hard to keep it as we did to get it."
The gathering ended with a prayer from the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church and president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP. "We thank you in advance for victory," he prayed.
Behind him, a large sign on the store read: "Thank you for your loyalty. This store is closing soon."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293.