First Sweetbay, now Publix pass on urban grocery stores on different sides of Tampa Bay

Published Jan. 30, 2013

The Encore urban redevelopment project sits on downtown Tampa's northeast corner and is still under construction. The site for a grocery store sits on the left side of the large development square, along Nebraska Ave., now shown as a grassy rectangle. Photo courtesy of Encore.

Wake up and good morning. It's not been a great month for Tampa Bay's more modest neighborhoods trying to get supermarkets to open up and stay.

First came Sweetbay's unexpected decision to close a whopping 33 locations, including its site in Tangerine Plaza, the symbolic grocery location that most symbolized the city of St. Petersburg's to give a boost to the economically challenged and principal African-American neighborhood known as Midtown. Read more here and check out St. Pete Mayor Foster's lengthy Sergeant Schultz-styled "I knew nothing" defense of the city being blindsided by the Tangerine Plaza closing (which happens officially on Feb. 13.)

Well, St. Petersburg's not the only area city to face the challenge of getting a supermarket into one of its economically challenged areas. (Photo, right: Mayor Foster speaks this month in front of the Tangerine Plaza Sweetbay store after learning it will close. By Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times.)

This week, Publix informed the city of Tampa that it has decided not to open a grocery store in the Encore Tampa urban redevelopment project on the northern edge of the city's downtown. Encore is a 40-plus-acre project that will feature new apartment buildings (some subsidized), office buildings (yet to be built), a new park, innovative energy and cooling systems, a planned African American museum and -- hopefully -- a grocery store to support it. Space near Nebraska Avenue, north of Cass Street, has been allocated for such a store. Read about Publix's decision not to pursue the site here.

Some perspective. Sweetbay is a small Tampa Bay/gulf coast supermarket chain owned by a company in Belgium. It's not doing well and already rumors are flying that the 33 closings of a 100-plus location chain is the first step to selling Sweetbay completely. Other grocery chains -- notably Winn-Dixie (now out of bankruptcy and under a new owner) and Albertson (dismembered and sold in pieces to other owners) -- that have failed to compete effectively against Publix and Walmart in this part of Florida have suffered financially.

St. Petersburg swears it will find another grocer top take the post soon to be abandoned by Sweetbay in Midtown.

In Tampa, Publix never had a store at Encore. It merely analyzed the prospects of the site and said No thanks. We do know Publix wants a downtown Tampa location, but probably one closer to the more upscale Channelside area where residential volume is growing.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has said repeatedly that a "downtown supermarket" is one of his top priorities.

Some stories this week, suggesting other grocery chains may yet step up to fill Encore's site, mention businesses like Whole Foods and Fresh Market as possibilities.

That's unlikely. On both sides of the bay, the best chances to land a grocery in Encore or Midtown are probably Walmart (it has urban neighborhood-sized stores), Save-A-Lot, Aldi or a similar chain that caters more to lower prices. In St. Pete, the extra challenge is that many of these chains already operate stores along U.S. 19 just to the west of Midtown. Any of those would deliver much of the goods to help these neighborhoods. It may all boil down to a game of city incentives.

-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, Tampa Bay Times

Posted by Robert Trigaux at 7:36:33 am on January 30, 2013