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Tuesday, Oct 23, 2018
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Tampa still in search of a downtown grocery store

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was walking in downtown Washington D.C. two weeks ago and stopped when he saw a vision come to life: A brand-new urban grocery store. An upscale Harris Teeter even.

“This was in the bottom of probably a 20-story tower, and it worked fine,” Buckhorn said. He stopped and took a photo with his phone. “I think as we become more urbanized in Tampa, the people who live downtown, who will be shoppers there, will get very accustomed to either walking to it, or taking an Uber car to it, or driving up into a parking lot above it.”

Buckhorn and a slew of other Tampa power brokers have been trying for years to lure a major grocery company into building downtown. They have come close to a deal with Publix Super Markets Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and others. Buckhorn said talks are still simmering with Wal-Mart, but the key sticking point remains the same: Parking.

The vast majority of grocery stores in America use a similar model of a one-story store, fronted by what Buckhorn calls “acres” of parking. “What we don't want in downtown is acres of surface parking,” he said. “That may be appropriate in Brandon, but it's not appropriate in downtown Tampa.”

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Two sites are in top contention for a downtown grocery, Buckhorn said, or at least are the topic of the most speculation.

The first is the city-backed Encore housing development at the northwest corner of East Harrison Street and Central Avenue. Developers for Wal-Mart were negotiating earlier this year with officials with the Tampa Housing Authority for a site at Encore, but when THA and Wal-Mart officials met in April face-to-face for the first time, Wal-Mart presented a plan for a traditional single-story store with wide surface parking, and they would not consider anything else, said THA chief operating officer Leroy Moore.

That meeting ended bitterly, Moore said, and he's not aware of any contact between THA and Wal-Mart since then. “If Wal-Mart did come back, I would not expect the same parties to be there,” Moore said. “They did not make a good departure.”

Tuesday, Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg issued a one-line statement about downtown Tampa: “We have nothing to announce regarding a new location in Tampa.”

Moore at the THA said the housing authority has toured two other grocery companies through the site: The discount chain Aldi, and officials with the Duckweed Urban Market, which has a small space at the base of the Element residential tower downtown. They've also reached out to other companies, such as The Fresh Market inc. and Trader Joe's.

Aldi Inc. came the closest recently to a deal, but the structural model simply didn't work, Moore said, and the meetings with Duckweed's owners were more research and brainstorming.

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Buckhorn said he's optimistic a deal with Wal-Mart could be done for some site downtown. “I think its safe to say we've had additional conversations with them [Wal-Mart],” Buckhorn said.

The challenge remains finding the right model, he said. The Encore site is still very much in play, but Buckhorn said Wal-Mart isn't the only game in town, and there are also other sites in contention, including one far larger in scale: Jeff Vinik's development around Amalie Arena. Vinik and his development team plan to build what could be a billion-dollar project with new hotels, offices, residential towers, entertainment venues and retail, likely with grocery included. Vinik has assembled roughly 24 acres around the arena, and plans what could be a billion-dollar development, in partnership with the Bill Gates-backed Cascade Investments.

Downtown could use a major grocery store.

There is a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market just west of downtown on Kennedy Boulevard. Publix has a Greenwise organic-themed grocery store on the northern end of South Tampa that has structured parking above the store, and is rarely busy.

Buckhorn said that's likely a symptom of location, or some other issue, and not a verdict on the demand for grocery stores downtown, particularly because the Publix at the top of Bayshore Boulevard is regularly packed with shoppers.

Add to that mix a half-dozen new apartment projects downtown either just-opened or under development that could bring thousands of new residents downtown, and Buckhorn said the raw numbers of residents will more than justify a new grocery store.

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