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Is Winn-Dixie destined to take over empty Sweetbays?

Midtown is enjoying the arrival of a Walmart where a Sweetbay was, but four other south Pinellas shopping centers are still waiting to fill the void a year after the grocery stores closed.

There are empty stores on 66th Street in Kenneth City, on 49th Street in Pinellas Park and on Ninth Avenue N in St. Petersburg. These shopping centers have other grocery stores either right across the street or within a few blocks.

The vacancy that seems to affect the most residents is at Skyway Plaza at 955 62nd Ave. S.

"It's been like a ghost town," said Saed Abdel Jaber, manager of a phone store at Skyway Plaza. "I'd say business is down 50 percent."

Customers who used to stop in to pay their bill or pick up accessories after grocery shopping are going elsewhere.

A Walgreens sits empty next to the former Sweetbay. A pizzeria and beauty supply store are closed.

"It's been okay because we've been open 13 years so we have customers who know about us," said Athena Huang, who works at Hong Kong Restaurant. "But usually we had a lot of people from the neighborhood who would walk to Sweetbay and some older people who came here and I don't see them anymore."

It's hard on nearby residents, too.

"I do have a car and it's inconvenient,'' said Jodi Davis, president of the Greater Pinellas Point Civic Association. "But it's harder for people (without cars) who are now taking the bus. I see a lot of our neighbors trying to pick up foods at Dollar Tree or Dollar General or Family Dollar, but they don't have anything fresh."

"I've heard from a lot of people that Winn-Dixie is looking, but there is nothing confirmed," Davis said. "I'd like to have an official update from the city."

City Council member Steve Kornell, who represents the residents around Skyway Plaza, recently submitted the issue of the empty Sweetbay as a business item for the council. Mayor Rick Kriseman said that when those deals are in the works, developers prefer not to reveal their plans in a public meeting.

"He requested that I withdraw the item," Kornell said, "and assured me he would make getting a tenant a top priority. I withdrew the item. I have heard loud and clear that the community would like to see the space occupied. I have heard the rumors about Winn-Dixie moving in there. The neighborhood would welcome Winn-Dixie.''

Linda Burns, a leasing agent with Sevell Realty who is trying to fill that empty Walgreens, has also heard that Winn-Dixie is eyeing the empty Sweetbay.

"We are hoping that they will take it over. We hope that will increase our marketability," she said. She has had several retailers consider the Walgreens.

Bi-Lo Holdings, the parent company of Winn-Dixie, has said it will reopen some former Sweetbays as Winn-Dixies. The company isn't specifying which ones. Company representatives could not be reached for comment.

Brian Bern, a senior director with Franklin Street real estate management in Tampa, has the task of leasing 33 shuttered Sweetbays along Florida's west coast.

"I'm encouraged. Probably within the next six months, Tampa Bay will be able to start seeing this Sweetbay mess sorting its way out," Bern said. "Not every location is going to be solved, but there will be some solutions for a lot of these places."

Sweetbay's parent company is still paying monthly rent for closed stores. The amount of time left in each lease and the rental rate affects how motivated landlords are to get another tenant. Those landlords getting rent for an empty space that is higher than they can lock in today are in less of a rush to fill the space.

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at kssmith@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8785.

Is Winn-Dixie destined to take over empty Sweetbays? 03/18/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 4:16pm]
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