Saturday, May 26, 2018
Opinion

Midtown faces new challenge as Sweetbay closes its doors

Sometimes, progress is measured by how a community rallies during times of adversity.

Fresh off of ringing in a new year of hope and renewal comes sobering news: Sweetbay in Midtown is closing.

While residents there are not alone in losing a supermarket — Sweetbay has announced it will close 22 stores in the Tampa Bay area — few would argue that the loss is greater in Midtown.

Midtown is a 5.5-square-mile area that encompasses eight neighborhoods, mainly south of Central Avenue, composed mostly of low-income residents.

Not long after the racial disturbances of 1996, residents there told city leaders they wanted a grocery store, post office and a bank.

The supermarket, which was on the top of residents' list, was an investment in that community.

On the heels of what many considered a year of progress comes the devastating announcement from one of the community's anchors.

In the past six months, the community had much to celebrate: The Manhattan Casino will soon be home to Sylvia's Queen of Soul Food Restaurant; Elihu Brayboy, a private real estate investor, purchased a building at 951 22nd St. S and announced that Pipo's Cuban Cafe will move the company's corporate operations to the Midtown; and St. Petersburg College is establishing a 45,000-square-foot building at 22nd Street and 13th Avenue S to house the college's Midtown Educational Center.

When Sweetbay Supermarket opened at 1794 22nd St. S, it signaled an investment in a community. What now?

It appears that local leaders and businesses poised to invest in Midtown will have to learn to master the "economic two-step" in an effort to ensure the region is successful.

Residents in that region, already cash-strapped and having limited resources, will face a reality few other residents have to deal with.

I recall catching a glimpse of that reality nearly two years ago while volunteering at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum.

On that day, a large group from Sarasota was visiting the Sunshine City to visit the Woodson and the newly opened Dalí Museum.

Former Times writer Jon Wilson, Mayor Bill Foster, School Board member René Flowers and Woodson Museum board member Gwen Reese were serving as docents on a tour of historic sites along the Deuces (22nd Street S).

I intended to document the event with photos, and when batteries ran low, I dashed to the nearby convenience store at Ninth Avenue S and 22nd Street.

I was shocked to learn that the store sold loose batteries at $1.99 apiece. I chided the store manager for the questionable practice and walked several blocks to Sweetbay — the same store set to close at the end of the month.

Sadly, many residents in Midtown won't have that luxury, if plans to close the supermarket stay the course. The closest grocery store is more than 2 miles away.

It's still unclear what sort of effect the loss of the Tangerine Plaza supermarket will have on current and future businesses considering moving to the region.

Let's hope it doesn't affect the County Commission's recent decision to give initial approval for the creation of a tax increment financing district for Midtown. Businesses like Sweetbay are key economic drivers if the program is to be successful.

Sweetbay's demise should not be considered the canary in the mine shaft, but boy does it feel like a major setback. The mayor plans a news conference at 10 a.m. Monday in front of the store.

Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 893-8874 and on Twitter at @StPeteSandi.

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