City, community leaders join to try and save Midtown Sweetbay

8:18 PM, Jan 21, 2013   |    comments
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City leaders, including St. Pete Mayor Bill Foster, spoke at a news conference in the store's parking lot Monday morning, decrying Sweetbay's decision.
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St. Petersburg, Florida -- Sweetbay's decision to close the Midtown store is leaving shoppers with a sour taste. 

"I've never seen this store low on people, or low on business, so I don't understand why this is happening," says Margaret Rushing, a frequent customer.

And city leaders, who spoke at a news conference in the store's parking lot Monday morning, also decried Sweetbay's decision.

"This is not a show, this is not a game; this is about the lives of people here in our community and again we say -- what a travesty," said Pinellas School Board Member Rene Flowers.

Why all the fuss over a grocery store?

Well, the Midtown Sweetbay is unique. The city put $1.3 million into helping secure the land and construct the plaza for the store. When it opened eight years ago, it was the first full-service grocery that people in this low-income, mostly black neighborhood had seen in 30 years. The store is also credited with kick-starting Midtown's revival.

"We have the grocery store, we have the bank, we have the clinic, we have the post office, and you don't want to go backwards," says former Mayor Rick Baker, who worked to bring the store during his term.

So what can the city do?

Mayor Bill Foster says he'd like to tell the Midtown story to Sweetbay executives, but so far he's had trouble reaching company decision makers. "This store is special," says Foster. "The city of St. Petersburg has skin in the game."

And public pressure may come into play too. The closure has left people who worked hard to establish a grocery store feeling angry, insulted and even betrayed by Sweetbay. And that has the makings for a not-so-sweet smelling public relations stink.

"We cannot let this building go dark and we will not," said Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) to a sprinkling of "Amen's" at the news conference. "What an affront to schedule a date of closing in Black History month."

Sweetbay calls the Midtown location "underperforming", but that may not mean it's losing money. A Sweetbay spokesperson would only tell 10 News that Midtown is "failing to meet sales expectations".

It's possible that the city, county, or state could offer Sweetbay or another vendor incentives to operate in Midtown, but community leaders say any such talk is premature, until Sweetbay is willing to come to the table and talk.

You can JOIN THE MOVEMENT to save Midtown Sweetbay by tweeting #SaveMidtownSweetbay to @shopsweetbay. 

Follow 10 News Reporter KathrynBursch on twitter @Kathryn Bursch

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