ST. PETERSBURG — Since Sweetbay closed its Midtown store last February, Dee Ann McLaurin has relied on the bus or rides from friends to do her weekly grocery shopping.
“Sometimes you can’t get a ride,” she said. “Sometimes you can’t carry all those bags on the bus.”
Today, McLaurin walked five minutes from her home to be among the first to shop at Midtown’s new Walmart neighborhood grocery store.
“It’s a good thing; we need it,” she said.
Starved of local shopping options, hundreds of Midtown residents flocked to the new store on 22nd Avenue for its opening today. City officials say the retail giant’s decision to take over the premises vacated by Sweetbay will mean residents with no transportation now have access to fresh, affordable food.
It is also an economic shot in the arm for Midtown, bringing 105 new jobs to the poverty-stricken area. Hundreds of residents lined up hoping to snag a job at the new store when it opened a hiring office in December.
“I am pleased Walmart is a committed partner to the city of St. Petersburg, and I am grateful for their investment in our community,” said Mayor Rick Kriseman, who attended a VIP event at the store Tuesday evening.
Sweetbay’s decision to close the store, one of 30 it closed in Florida, was viewed as a major setback for the rejuvenation of Midtown. Prior to the store’s 2005 opening, the city had invested $1.3 million in the development of the plaza, one of several projects intended to rejuvenate the area.
Even for residents with cars, the extra two-mile drive to the nearest grocery store meant putting more gas in the car. Other residents had no choice but to shop at convenience stores where prices are higher.
That hit in the pocket came in a community where almost one-third of residents live below federal poverty levels, roughly twice the rate of the rest of St. Petersburg, according to a Pinellas County poverty report.
While some neighborhoods have protested proposed Walmart stores, the mood among Midtown shoppers today was celebratory. Shoppers entered through an archway of green balloons and wolfed down free samples of cake.
Some turned down offers of help from staff to locate items, saying they wanted to explore the store.
The first item in McLaurin’s shopping cart was a gallon of milk priced roughly $1 cheaper than the $5 she sometimes paid at nearby convenience stores.
Tanya Burgess, who works at Sylvia’s Restaurant in Midtown, said the store’s prices are a better fit for Midtown than Sweetbay.
“People are really happy about this place being here,” she said.
To cater to shoppers arriving on foot, the Midtown store will have more hand-baskets than usual and the store is also hoping to sell carts that residents can use to get heavier shopping loads home.
Retiree Ronald Hall asked Byrant about a job for his daughter who lost hers when Sweetbay closed. He said he is grateful Walmart has brought work to Midtown.
“Any job in this neighborhood is a big help to the community,” Hall said. “Someone is putting food on the table.”