Tampa Palms Publix's hiatus will leave a void

TAMPA PALMS — Dawn Crawford has three kids and not much patience for menu planning. So more days than not, she beats a path to the Publix at Bruce B. Downs and Tampa Palms boulevard.

Listen to her talk about the store, her store. "It's convenient. It's always clean. The staff is wonderful. They always have enough cashiers. The shelves are always stocked and the bakery is great."

Okay, okay, and that's just this particular store, she said. "I could go on and on about Publix."

At 39, Crawford is not unusual. Like men and their beer, like me and my coffee, certain people just have a thing for their supermarket. And some are genuinely grieving this store's January date with a wrecking ball.

After the holidays, the Lakeland-based grocer will tear the Publix down, all 48,000 square feet, and spend much of 2010 building a larger and more energy-efficient store in its place.

After 21 years. it's time, said Shannon Patten, a corporate spokeswoman. Patten said her office has received mixed comments from shoppers, some distressed, but most believing the rebuilt store will be worth the sacrifice.

The pull of Publix, the fact that you hear people throw the phrase "my store" around, is not lost on the public relations staff, who get a certain amount of pushback when they tear down and rebuild.

We found tearful shoppers and baggers seven years ago when Publix launched a similar upgrade in Original Carrollwood. People wore "I love Publix" buttons and, if you go on eBay, you can find buttons and bumper stickers for sale. You'll also find "I love Publix" and the more popular "I Heart Publix" sites that help make the most of coupons and store specials.

Are there other chain stores that people love so fervently? I don't think so. If it were up to me to do the weekly shopping, I might chance the lines at Walmart or search for the nearest Aldi. But my husband, who does the shopping, is a Publix man through and through.

Back to Tampa Palms, where the closing of Store 344 presents an additional issue: logistics. This is, after all, New Tampa, which has no road grid and virtually nothing in the way of neighborhood commerce.

"I don't know what I will do for those nine months," said June Arnhym, 73, who has followed the news as if it were the health care debate. "This is my store."

There just are not many good alternatives, said Maggie Wilson, consultant to the community development district.

"If you were sitting here in my office, you could drive north on Bruce B. Downs to approximately where Home Depot is and you would find a Winn-Dixie or a Sweetbay or something else," Wilson said. "And in rush hour, that's at least a 15-minute drive."

While bracing for this big black hole in their lives, residents also wonder what will become of the surrounding City Plaza shopping center, once known for art shows and date-night restaurants. I recently counted four empty storefronts, plus a Blockbuster video store that is liquidating everything.

The landlord, Orlando-based Crossman & Co., has announced a total makeover. But nine months is a long time without an anchor.

"The day that Publix reopens, we are a captive market," Wilson said. "The day the door opens again, every person who shopped in Publix will be back, so Publix has no heartburn with this." As for the other stores, she added, "I think there are serious issues with their survival."

Fortunately, the center still has a Stein Mart. The Tampa Palms Women's Club held its art show in October as always. And Publix says it is doing all it can to hold onto the more than 180 employees at store 344.

Even diehard fans concur that the supermarket needs to be bigger. "It's not large enough to offer the wonderful selection you see in other stores." Arnhym said.

So she'll shop at a south Tampa Publix, or at a Sweetbay when she has to. She'll hang in there, she said, even though "it's going to be tough."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Tampa Palms Publix's hiatus will leave a void 12/03/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:59pm]

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