Monday, January 22, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Publix missing opportunity in downtown Tampa

First, an obvious confession.

As a lifetime scribbler, I readily admit I have no earthly idea how to run a business, especially a massive multigazzillion-dollar corporation like Publix.

So I'm sure when the company opted to take a pass on putting a grocery store within Tampa's Encore redevelopment project, the decision was based on the conclusions of plenty of geeks with computer printouts, bean-counting accountants, pinched lawyers and probably maybe even an abacus or two.

After all, Publix didn't get to be Publix by making bone-headed business decisions.

On the other hand, I would probably go belly up trying to sell organic produce in a community of vegetarians.

Still, at the risk of committing presumptuousness, I don't understand why Publix would take a pass on a store within a housing development that includes 794 apartments and between 300 and 700 condos.

Seems like a fairly fertile market to me. But then again I couldn't sell a bottle of bourbon to John Daly.

Downtown Tampa always has been something of a marketing pariah when it comes to trying to attract a big-name grocer to set up shop.

There was a time when that reluctance was well-founded, when the streets were little more than tumbleweed zones.

But in recent years, Tampa's downtown has undergone a rejuvenation, with no shortage of watering holes and restaurants springing up. These owners are businesspeople, too. Obviously they saw a need for their wares and moved to fill it. And for good reason.

Downtown is no longer Deadwood meets Chernobyl.

More than 50,000 people travel to jobs in Tampa's downtown. And some 6,000 people reside within the downtown area. And they need to buy groceries.

Again, in case you missed the point, I couldn't sell a bowl of rice in Beijing, but it seems to me if you had a potential marketplace of 50,000 workers pouring into downtown Tampa every day, along with 6,000 (and growing) downtown residents, someone, somewhere just might alight on the notion it might be a good idea to open up a grocery store for their convenience.

But what do I know? I couldn't sell Lance Armstrong a plastic sample cup.

To be fair, there is a grocery store in downtown Tampa, the Duckweed Urban Market on Polk Street. It's tiny, probably not much bigger than a storage unit. But Duckweed, which recently announced plans to move into a larger space elsewhere downtown, is about the only place in Tampa's core meeting the basic grocery needs of workers and residents. Good for them.

As Publix and other large grocery chains dither over making an investment in downtown Tampa, it might be worth noting that when it first opened for business, Whole Foods began as an itty-bitty storefront grocery operation, too.

The Publix brain trust in Lakeland might want to look over their shoulder and see a little grocery store that could be gaining on them — one square foot at a time.

But what do I know? I couldn't sell ink to a tattoo parlor.

Eventually some grocery giant will commit to open a store somewhere in Tampa's downtown. And there will be great happiness.

But the opportunity is there now. The locations are readily available now. What's lacking, now, is a corporate-based faith that downtown Tampa's revitalization is truly real.

But what do I know? I couldn't sell a rawhide chewy to Lassie.

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