The future of Tangerine Plaza hangs in the balance.
BY ANNA WELCH, Neighborhood News Bureau
ST. PETERSBURG —Going grocery shopping for the week is a chore within itself. Without any means of transportation, that errand often becomes an all-day affair.
This situation is the reality for many Midtown residents, and as it stands, their fate rests in the hands of the City of St. Petersburg, and what will become of Tangerine Plaza, or as it is now known, the Midtown Plaza.
“The plaza is very significant, especially for the elderly. They don’t have to spend money to catch a cab, and they can have their prescriptions filled and cash checks all in one place,” said Jamekka Harris, owner of Meme’s Beauty Gallery in the plaza.
History of a struggle
Before 2005 when residents of Midtown worked with the City of St. Petersburg to bring a Sweetbay Supermarket into the plaza, the area had only convenience stores and meat markets. A supermarket was a luxury this area could not afford, and the closest one was Albertson’s on 54th Avenue South or the Super Walmart on 34th Street South and 35th Avenue, a distance too far to walk.
Having a Sweetbay close to home marked a turning point for the community, bringing Midtown residents a grocery store that they could call their own, and showing the financial improvements and advancements being made in their community.
However, Sweetbay officials claimed that the store in Midtown was underperforming in January 2013, and pulled the plug on their store in the Midtown Plaza in February 2013, leaving the plaza without a supermarket for seven months, as Mark Puentes reported in the Tampa Bay Times.
“[I believe] theft was an issue when Sweetbay closed,” said Sam Carter, an employee of Fresh Nation Clothing, a store that has been in the plaza for eight years.
The Midtown Plaza has faced numerous hardships since its opening. From Sweetbay leaving in 2013 and residents having to convince the city to help bring a Walmart Neighborhood Market to fill the space, to the latest issue of foreclosure on the shopping center, it has not been an easy road for the plaza or for the residents in Midtown to travel.
Bisquick Gluten Free Mix that expired June 17, 2016, was purchased October 19, 2016
The biggest issue affecting the plaza may be the fact that residents have found expired food products still sitting on the shelves. After concerns were brought to the attention of the Neighborhood News Bureau, a trip to the Neighborhood Market in October ended with the purchase of expired gluten-free pancake mix, with a date of June 17, 2016.
“When you go into Walmart, you expect certain things. Sweetbay had more of a selection and a better one,” said Melanie Rubin, a customer in the plaza.
The Neighborhood News Bureau also reached out to Walmart regarding the issue of expired food in their store.
“We’ll continue addressing this matter to make sure our customers have access to the freshest products, and we encourage them to speak to a store manager about concerns they may have,” said Charles Crowson, senior manager of National Media Relations for Walmart.
The conflict surrounding the Midtown Plaza makes its way into the shops located within the plaza itself, where numerous store owners expressed their concern, and customers requested nothing more than more attention paid to the stores.
Jamekka Harris, who has owned and operated Meme’s Beauty Gallery since 2007, said her business began to struggle during the period where there was no supermarket in the plaza. Most of her clientele comes from walk-ins, those that are shopping for groceries and decide to drop into other shops. Without an anchor store, the number of walk-ins diminished. Since then, the rent has continued to increase.
“Two thousand five-hundred dollars is steep, and people can’t afford it. Come January, if there is no difference, I may be out of here too,” said Harris.
Harris is not the only owner experiencing an increase in rent without explanation. Carter also expressed his concerns on the matter, stating that he did not receive a notice explaining why the cost of rent would jump about $800 at the beginning of 2016.
In response to concerns about rent, City Councilmember Steve Kornell said small businesses should look towards The Greenhouse, an organization that caters to small businesses, helping to give them the resources to thrive in the local economy. However, due to loss of employees, Greenhouse has not been able to get back into Midtown.
“We want to retool our efforts… We want to be more involved on a consistent basis,” said Claude Williams, the director of The Greenhouse.
The situation may not be as bad as it seems, however. The manager of Sexy Lady Beauty Supply for the past three years, who requested to be called “Sam,” had only positive things to say about the plaza and his experiences.
“It is safer here [than his previous location], the plaza has been better since the Walmart Neighborhood Market was put in. It is much better now,” said Sam.
Future of the plaza
Even with mounting concerns from customers and store owners, it seems that no change will be made by the city.
In August, the Tampa Bay Times reported the city council voted unanimously to spend $2.2 million to protect the tax dollars that have already been invested in the plaza. Proceeding a foreclosure auction, the city has become sole owners of the property. The ultimate fate of Midtown Plaza rests in their hands, and according to Kornell, the hands of the business owners currently located in the center.
“We want to make sure our investment of tax dollars is protected and that the grocery store stays,” said Kornell. “The issue is they deserve a grocery store, and we need to help them develop.”
Kornell explained that his vision is for the entire area of Midtown to become an “African American cultural district.” He stressed that the last thing he wants to see is Midtown become just like downtown St. Petersburg because the people living in Midtown have a history of their own and arts that are entirely different than what is seen at Vinoy Park or along Central Avenue.
“Anytime you lose an anchor; smaller businesses will struggle. It’s a balancing act; the city needs to help, but the free market also needs to be able to do its own thing,” Kornell said.
For residents of Midtown, it is about more than a supermarket. Having a supermarket in the shopping center and close to their homes is indeed beneficial, but the opening of the plaza was a symbol of the growing community and the wealth that could be found in Midtown.
“We have to keep it affordable for people. We don’t want someone else coming in and reaping the benefits, or to bring a bulldozer to the small businesses,” said Kornell.
A supermarket under fire, local business owners struggling and a community left to fend for themselves; the Midtown Plaza has had a rough road. The future of the plaza and the community should be decided by those living in Midtown, a point that Kornell agrees with, stating that he wants the people who have lived in the community for decades to benefit, not outside corporations.