It is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in St. Petersburg, FL, and a crowd has gathered at the Sweetbay Supermarket in the Midtown community. Community leaders and elected officials alike spoke with passion about saving the first supermarket that has come into this community since the A&P closed 31 years ago.
The Midtown community is a community that may have become far too used to being slighted, overlooked and forgotten, but a renaissance has begun. Economic development is sparking, and community development is burgeoning in the form of new businesses calling Midtown home. Educational institutions are making an investment here while houses are being refurbished and new ones are being built along with dollars being allocated towards helping this community grow into everything the people of Midtown believed it could be.
One key addition to this revitalization is the Sweetbay Supermarket, located on the corner of 22nd Street and 18th Avenue South. Florida State Representative Darryl Rouson said, “This is more than just a store. We took this property from drug lords. We walked around the block and there were houses here.” Rouson explained that the community decided what it needed most. They needed a grocery store.
And so, this Sweetbay Supermarket opened in 2005 after a lengthy city-led effort in which it invested $1.35 million for the construction of Tangerine Plaza and additional funds to assemble the land for the site. Many financial partners then pitched in with dollars from banking institutions along with county, state and federal funds to make this supermarket a reality.
“This Midtown store is just a number to Sweetbay corporate, but to our community, it is so much more. The city invested blood, sweat and tears and money to bring Midtown its first grocery store. Sweetbay has been a great partner in increasing vitality throughout the 22nd Street Corridor,” said Mayor Bill Foster.
But, Sweetbay corporate is not talking, said the mayor, elected officials and business partners, including Urban Development Solutions Developer Larry Newsome. The company has not communicated with the business partners who have money invested in this project, nor the elected officials who have called numerous times requesting a conversation.
“Whatever resources I can bare from the State of Florida. I’ll bring here,” said Ruson. Representative Ruson was one official who publicly stated that he does feel insulted that Sweebay has not bothered contacting the community directly over the closure. Ruson expressed that he is frustrated that he doesn’t know what, if anything, it would take to keep the supermarket here. Addressing Sweetbay directly, he said, “Talk to us at the table to see about gap money.”
Pinellas County School Board member and lifelong Midtown resident Rene Flowers said, “We are a community who will work with people, and we will hold your hand and show you the way.” Flowers expressed her frustration in Sweetbay not showing any signs of being willing to work with the community.
“We will continue to have a high quality grocery store at this site in Midtown,” said Council Chair Karl Nurse. “This is about providing quality of life, community pride and jobs. If it isn’t a Sweetbay store, we will recruit and support another grocery store for our community.”
Community activist Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter expressed the critical need for a high quality grocery store in the community. “There are people right down this street who don’t have a vehicle. Their only choice was to buy meet from one of these meat markets that don’t keep their food at the right temperature. I’ve gone in myself and told [the store owners], ‘Either you clean this damn store, or I’m calling the health department.’”
Mamma Tee explained that she has shown people how they can walk down to Sweetbay, spend some money on groceries and take a cab home with a few dollars they have left so that they can buy all they need versus just a few things at a time, which they can carry home.
Not only is this about a community’s access to nutritious food, this also is about jobs, and this is being taken very seriously. Flowers said that the Urban League has committed to make sure the Sweetbay store employees will be able to “feed their families.” Likewise, Councilmember Wengay Newton stated that Wal-Mart has committed to helping these employees with jobs if Sweetbay does indeed close the store.
Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker also was present. Baker was the acting mayor when the plans for this Sweetbay were being made, and Foster was then on the City Council—Baker came to lend his support to this critical resource in the community and to support Mayor Foster’s efforts to save this store. Baker explained that this store is a large part in the vision he shares with Foster to have a seamless city. He explained that you cannot have a seamless city when people in one neighborhood have to take a bus to get to critical services such as a grocery store, a pharmacy, a post office.
For right now, elected officials, business partners and community members alike are simply asking that Sweetbay release the numbers and agree to a conversation to explore ways that this particular Sweetbay can remain open. The community is willing to do what it takes to keep this partnership going if possible.