I tell people new to downtown Tampa that it once was so dead after 5 p.m., you could expect tumbleweeds to roll past.
Over time, downtown got livelier, with restaurants, bars and parks, a respectable city skyline and residential towers — with actual residents walking actual dogs, maybe the surest sign of becoming a neighborhood.
But whither a supermarket? Maybe even, downtowners hoped, a Publix, Florida’s go-to grocery.
Rival city St. Petersburg was years ahead on the downtown supermarket score. But Publix, with its reputation for not showing up until the party is in full swing, held out in downtown Tampa until it finally opened a hipster version in the Channel District in 2019.
“I probably would have traded my first-born to get that first Publix,” said former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who worked for years to get that downtown store. “They are the gold standard of grocery stores, so when they commit to an area, that sends a signal that that area has arrived.”
So scoring a Publix would be big news for an ambitious urban renewal project going on in the West River neighborhood just northwest of downtown, where public housing units were razed in 2018.
Residents of that complex were told they could eventually return, and last year, seniors started moving back into the newly-opened Renaissance at West River apartments nearby. More towers are being built for an area that was plagued with crime and deteriorating housing.
In December, the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported that Publix is expected to be part of a 325-unit, market-rate apartment development north of Interstate 275 and across the street from Blake High School. It’s not far from the busy Armature Works complex and the popular Ulele restaurant by the river.
Neither the Miami-based Related Group, which has a leading role in the project, nor Publix would confirm the Publix possibility for the Tampa Bay Times.
“All I have been saying is it’s Florida’s grocer of choice,” said Leroy Moore, senior vice president and CEO of the Tampa Housing Authority. “That should immediately indicate who it is, but we cannot use the grocer’s name ‘til we close.”
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All of which is big news for West River.
I regularly pass through all this busy redevelopment, which includes the installation of two nearby traffic circles that are supposed to be more efficient than old-school intersections. (Let me just say it’s clear that many of us are unfamiliar with the traffic circle concept, but that is another topic for another day.)
This area had long been a food desert, with mostly mom-and-pops and convenience stores within easy reach as food sources. Boosters also point out that along with this grocery-store-to-be-named come jobs within walking or biking distance of where people live.
It’s like watching downtown Tampa’s momentum push outward into some of the city’s oldest and most diverse neighborhoods. Any full-service grocery would be welcome. But Publix, with its surgical eye for opening only when it’s good and ready and where it knows it can thrive, would say something even more.
Joe Robinson, a longtime West Tampa activist and chairman of the redevelopment area’s citizen advisory committee, called the impending grocery store “huge” for a community neglected for decades.
“It’s coming around,” he said. “Finally, 40 years of working, and I can see results now.”
He’s just hoping they’ll have a pharmacy, too.