ST. PETERSBURG — The storefront in Tangerine Plaza sits empty in the middle of a sprawling food desert.

A Sweetbay Supermarket and a Walmart Neighborhood Market have come and gone from this city-owned shopping center. Since Walmart pulled out in 2017, nearly 20,000 people have faced limited access to healthy food in the historically Black and low-income Midtown area.

The city first sought proposals to redevelop Tangerine Plaza in 2018. Officials and developers say they’re now close to a deal that would bring in a new grocer. But City Council members say a deal has been “close” for months without materializing.

Without a grocery store, all five of Midtown’s major census tracts are designated as areas of “low income and low access” to healthy food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The area’s poverty is compounded by limited vehicle ownership or access to public transportation and a lack of substantial grocery stores.

The 38,900 square foot grocery store space sits empty at Tangerine Plaza in St. Petersburg as seen on Wednesday, August 18, 2021. There is concern from many in the community that city and other officials aren’t working hard enough to address the lack of a major grocer in an area that is considered a food desert. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

Each day without a grocery store exacerbates health issues among the city’s most vulnerable, said Wendy Wesley, a dietician and St. Petersburg food policy activist.

“You can’t manage chronic disease on a gas station diet,” she said.

Working on a deal

City officials have worked for years to bring another grocery store to the Tangerine Plaza site. The city bought the plaza from its owner after the Walmart Neighborhood Market closed, and it sought proposals for its redevelopment in 2018 and 2019.

By March 2021, Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration had chosen a developer for the site, Sugar Hill Group LLC, and had begun negotiating a term sheet.

Sugar Hill’s plan would include a new location for St. Petersburg-based grocery store Taste of the Islands, as well as affordable housing and a space featuring e-learning and e-gaming. The grocery store would take up 10,000 square feet, as opposed to the nearly 39,000 square feet that the Walmart market occupied — a size the city believes would increase its chances of surviving.

“We want to get this right,” said Alan DeLisle, city development administrator.

City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle during a St. Pete City Council meeting.City Development Administrator Alan DeLisle during a St. Pete City Council meeting. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

But a deal hasn’t been finalized after months of negotiations.

DeLisle told City Council members in January that a deal was coming soon, Council member Gina Driscoll said. Tangerine Plaza is in Driscoll’s district, and Council member and mayoral candidate Robert Blackmon has suggested moving the city’s municipal services to the site.

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Wesley said DeLisle told her in March that an agreement would be signed at the end of May.

The city hasn’t moved fast enough, said mayoral candidate Wengay Newton, who grew up in Midtown.

“Actions speak louder than words, and look at the results, you know what I’m saying? They’ve done nothing,” said Newton, a former City Council member and state representative.

St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Wengay Newton. St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Wengay Newton. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

DeLisle said Tangerine Plaza is one of the mayor’s top priorities, but that it can take a long time to reach a deal on this kind of project. He acknowledged that the past failure of two major grocery stores makes it harder to redevelop the site, and he said the pandemic has slowed things down.

Although DeLisle did not give details on what still needs to be worked out, he said the city has to make sure all the elements of the mixed-use project are in place, including housing and commercial space.

DeLisle said the mayor’s administration will bring a deal to City Council when it has one. He doesn’t know when that will be — and he said there’s a chance on any project that a deal could fall through.

“I believe what I said to Council is that we were making progress on the deal. And I believe that that’s what I said to anybody who asked me,” DeLisle said. “But I’ve been in this business a long time, and I never predict when … a deal is going to come together.”

Financier and Sugar Hill partner Roy Binger put a tentative date on development. A term sheet should be worked out between the city and the development group within the next two months, he said. Dirt could move in December or early next year.

Binger’s Sugar Hill partners include the Rev. Louis Murphy, from St. Petersburg’s Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, and New Urban Development, the housing development affiliate of the Urban League of Greater Miami.

The development group and the city have moved as quickly as possible, Binger said. But national trends, like the pandemic and a movement away from strip-mall retail, have made it hard to find sustainable commercial tenants.

The former 39,900 square foot grocery store space sits empty at Tangerine Plaza in  St. Petersburg as soon on Wednesday, August 18, 2021. There is concern from many in the community that city and other official aren’t working hard enough to address the lack of a major grocer in an area that is considered a food desert. The former 39,900 square foot grocery store space sits empty at Tangerine Plaza in St. Petersburg as soon on Wednesday, August 18, 2021. There is concern from many in the community that city and other official aren’t working hard enough to address the lack of a major grocer in an area that is considered a food desert. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

“I know time has elapsed,” Binger said. “A little more detail needs to get done.”

It’s a “mission-driven project” for Sugar Hill, Binger said, because it will create access to healthy food in St. Petersburg.

A history — and a future — of challenges

If a store opens, it’ll have to stay afloat in one of St. Petersburg’s poorest neighborhoods. The struggle to get a grocer to stay there stretches back a quarter-century.

After a police officer shot and killed Black teenager TyRon Lewis in 1996, riots swept the city. In their wake, Midtown residents told city leaders they lacked basic services like a bank, a post office and a grocery store.

The city entered a deal with a local businessman who would build and rent out space in Tangerine Plaza, even though he had never managed a grocery store lease before. Sweetbay opened in 2005 but closed in 2013.

After Sweetbay closed, city leaders courted Walmart, despite clear signs the site’s owner couldn’t pay his bills, a Tampa Bay Times investigation found. Walmart pulled out in 2017, and the Times reported that Walmart representatives had repeatedly told a city economic official the store was struggling to make enough money.

A smaller store might fare better in Midtown. DeLisle pointed to a city market study that found that a smaller grocery store of 18,000 to 20,000 square feet could survive in the area, although it might require financial support from the city. He also pointed out that Sugar Hill is from the community, meaning the project will fit the area better than a chain store.

DeLisle said the city would try to maintain some oversight by leasing the property to the owner until the project is complete.

“We would not allow a purchase of the site, in which case the city would be completely out of it, unless there’s a track record of success,” he said.

But he added that the city couldn’t guarantee the store would stay open unless it ran the store itself.

Even if the store survives, food insecurity may persist in Midtown and across low-income sections of south St. Petersburg.

“It’s a problem of poverty,” said Rebecca Johns, a University of South Florida geography professor who studies food access in the city.

Putting in a grocery store could help eliminate the food desert, Johns said, making it easier for residents to get to a store and shop for food. But some still may not be able to regularly afford adequate food.

Ending food insecurity will require measures to fight poverty, Johns said, like raising wages; providing transportation, affordable housing and health care; and eliminating racism in employment, housing and education.

Some community members have tried to take matters into their own hands. Restaurateur and entrepreneur Ramona Brayboy, who lives in the area, used her stimulus money to launch the Southside Fresh Market in April.

Local vendors sell healthy food at the upstart market, which runs Sundays at the corner of 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue South. In September, the market will move to a more permanent location across the street from the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Center.

The market accepts EBT and also offers vegetable and herb plants for sale. Brayboy said it’s not enough — Midtown residents need a grocery store. She’d like to see the city support a food co-op in Tangerine Plaza.

“Everybody in South St. Pete knows that if they want to eat healthy, they’re going to have to take a trip to the other side of town,” Brayboy said. “We deserve to be able to have affordable, nutritious options. The city needs to do something about it.”

An effort to start a co-op called One Community emerged in 2018, but board president Erica Hardison said the group remains hundreds of members short of the 300 it needs to start planning a physical store.

Brayboy’s business partner, Judith Turner, said the city hasn’t supported the Southside Fresh Market in any meaningful way, and local politicians, including the mayor, have not reached out.

“There is no interest in supporting any initiatives from citizens solving their own problems,” Turner said.

Mayor’s office spokesperson Ben Kirby wrote that he expects someone from Healthy St. Pete to reach out to the market. The city initiative works to fight food insecurity through a range of projects.

DeLisle pointed to the historic Manhattan Casino and a development project at the former Commerce Park site as city efforts that could help address food insecurity.

A food hall at the Manhattan Casino opened in April and closed last month, though DeLisle said that hopefully, there will be food vendors there again in the future.

For the Commerce Park project, the city partnered with the Sankofa Vision Group, which includes some of St. Petersburg’s most high-profile African American leaders. It will feature housing and commercial space, and DeLisle expects it to involve food.

Still, much depends on bringing a grocery store to the area.

Newton said that when he was growing up, his family had to shop at corner stores or take a bus to a faraway grocery store. And since Walmart left, those are the same options many Midtown residents have today.

A grocery is an anchor for the community, he said, providing jobs and economic growth as well as food.

“A grocery store is a basic necessity,” Newton said.

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