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Tarpon Springs growls at Food Lion

Published Oct. 6, 2005

Food Lion executives are not easy to reach these days.

Mayor Anita Protos had been calling them in North Carolina for two weeks to get them to change their minds about closing a Food Lion supermarket in Tarpon Springs next Saturday.

They didn't return her calls until Friday, and they haven't changed their minds.

Also, except for one letter a month ago, Food Lion officials at the company's headquarters in Salisbury, N.C., haven't responded to petitions signed by hundreds of customers to keep open the store _ one of 88 to be closed by Food Lion in 10 states in a move to cut operating losses. The company operates more than 1,000 stores in 14 states.

Chuck Thomas, manager of the shopping center on Gulf Road where Food Lion is the anchor store, said he called Salisbury several times, without success, since the company faxed him an announcement in early January that it would close the store. It also will close one in Palm Harbor and 16 others in Florida. Another Food Lion store on Alt. U.S. 19 just north of Tarpon Springs will remain open.

John Hughes, manager of the Gulf Road store since it opened three years ago, said he was instructed by higher management not to talk publicly about the closing.

Telephone calls from the St. Petersburg Times to Food Lion's public affairs office in Salisbury were finally returned Friday by company spokesman Brian Peace.

His bottom line: No matter how many people protest, "the store will close as scheduled at 6 p.m. on March 12."

"We have been inundated with thousands of letters and telephone calls from people protesting the closing of all 88 stores," Peace said. "We have replied to some individual letters from Tarpon Springs and we apologize for any delays in responding to others. They are all important to us, and we will answer all of them in a timely manner."

After the call from the Times, Peace called Protos. The mayor said Peace told her "how sorry we are" to close the store. She said she told him, "I find that hard to believe. You're just looking at the (profit) numbers."

Some of the other five businesses in the shopping center are worried they could suffer unless another anchor store moves in. Six other store spaces are vacant.

Fred Morales of Tarpon Springs said his tae kwon do shop would suffer because parents often drop off their children while shopping at Food Lion.

Florine Ferguson and her son, Thomas Ferguson, both of Tarpon Springs and owners of the We Are Videos shop, have been getting customers and other people to sign petitions. She said they sent about 500 signatures to Food Lion headquarters and have petitions with about 500 more names ready to go. Food Lion has not responded to them.

Patricia Walker, who lives in Pointe Alexis, not far from the shopping center, sent petitions to Food Lion with about 100 signatures. She received a Feb. 2 letter from Food Lion President Tom Smith, but nothing since then.

"The decision to close this store comes as a part of Food Lion's on-going review of individual store profitability," said Smith's letter. "By closing unprofitable stores, the company will eliminate operating losses and be able to focus its resources on profitable stores."

Those words from Thomas didn't soothe the feelings of Nancy Fraunfelder, a nurse living near the store who does most of her grocery shopping there.

"It's terrible, horrible," Mrs. Fraunfelder said as she pushed a half-filled shopping cart down an aisle at the store. "This store is really convenient. I usually stop here on my home from work."

Thomas said Food Lion has 17 years left on its 20-year lease. Peace said the company would try to sublease the space or get another company to buy its lease.