St. Petersburg Politicians were patting themselves on the back when they funneled millions of tax dollars to attract a Sweetbay Grocery store to Midtown St. Petersburg. The crowing continued well into Spring of last year when city economic development staff were quoted in the Tampa Bay Business Journal extolling the success of the project (“We virtually gave SweetBay and GTE land, but in exchange they have to be there for a set number of years,” Goodwin said.) This month the store shut down the day after the federal “new market tax credits” expired. This despite the Sweetbay’s claim in the same Tampa Bay Business Journal piece that they were “pleased with the financial performance” of the store. However, according to conversations with midtown business owners, the Sweetbay project cut their business down 25-30% and drove two stores out of business. These local midtown businesses were harmed by use of their own tax money!
This Sweetbay debacle is an example of the very bad public policy of using tax money to finance business deals. The patina of “economic development” is used to cover up a transfer of dollars from citizens directly into the pockets of large private businesses. The real world effects of these bad policies are seen in the failure of the midtown Sweetbay and also in the negative impact on small businesses nearby. Below is a letter from Eleanor White, Executive Director of Patriots’ Ink, inc, a local activist group dedicated to free markets, liberty and small government. The letter was sent to the City Council and Mayor of St. Petersburg. She and her associate toured local businesses near the Sweetbay and learned of the hardships they suffered. She also learned of the courage of business people so dedicated to their community they found a way to keep their doors open in the face of a government assault on their market.
The politicians of St. Petersburg owes the owners of these businesses an apology for harming them with their own tax dollars! They also owe an apology to the neighborhood for proiving the illusion of food and shopping security all so these same politicians could look good for the camera while their friends enjoyed the profit off the taxpayer. For instance, state Rep Daryl Rouson earned about $1.2 million selling the land for the deal. The same land he acquired by buying out distressed properties with delinquent property taxes.
A Sense of Community in Midtown
By Eleanor White* with Alden Burnett
February 10th, 2013
After reading about how the SweetBay closure in Midtown was about to put a terrible hardship on the neighborhood there, we decided to inquire more deeply. We spent many hours in the first few days of February meeting and speaking with grocers and convenience store owners in the Midtown area who are not in Tangerine Plaza, where SweetBay is located. The owners who had been there for a long time all said they had experienced a drop of 25%-35% in their business when SweetBay opened seven (7) years ago. One said if anyone told us they had less than a 35% loss, they weren’t being honest. Two stores were driven out of business. Some owners had purchased their businesses after the SweetBay opened. These newer owners have noticed a surge in their business since SweetBay “perishables” shelves began emptying.
Most of these owners are St. Pete residents, if not Midtown residents. They are well aware that it was their tax dollars which were used to encourage competition to their businesses. They all thought there was something inherently wrong in that. One person even called it “immoral” to have their own tax money used against them. According to a recent article in the St Petersburg Times, “Taxpayers paid $5.1 million to buy land and demolish old structures that occupied the corner of 22nd Street S and 18th Avenue S. To help Tangerine Plaza go from a drawing board to aisles of fruit and vegetables, residents spent $1.4 million in tax dollars to build out the inside of the store. Another $400,000 was spent to bury nearby power lines.” City, state and federal taxpayer funds were used to build and support the Tangerine Plaza enterprise, to the tune of nearly $7,000,000.00 (7 million). The developers pay only $5.00 a year to rent the city-owned property and then rent it to the businesses there. These are people who truly did not build their business: Tax money did.
Community pride that the politicians often talk about does not come from government funded malls and big corporations. It is the older buildings which give me a sense of nostalgia, reminding me of the grocery store where my mother shopped when I was a child before the big chains appeared in my hometown. These small Midtown grocers are proud of their stores and what they’ve been able to accomplish in their neighborhood. Some have mentioned this to local bureaucrats but are still awaiting a return call.
Helplessness is a terrible feeling. I’ve looked at the produce and other perishables offered in some of these stores. It was fresh and priced reasonably. In fact, some of the prices were less than the chain grocery where I shop in mid-county.
These local owners are proud of the relationships they’ve built with their neighbors throughout the years. They’re proud of the variety and quality of products they’ve been able to offer, even if they can’t compete with the prices of the large stores. Some can no longer afford to offer the variety they used to have before SweetBay opened. And yet, they’ve hung on for years, even at personal financial loss. That sounds like community pride to me. They have a determination that people from other areas, or countries, will never have in local communities. SweetBay is a publicly traded Belgian company and none of them to my knowledge have a sense of belonging in Midtown. Most Belgians have a sense of belonging in theircommunities in Belgium.
I’m wondering how the community would’ve fared if the city had taken that local taxpayer money and applied it to loans at little or no interest, to help the local owners develop their property and their local businesses? Picking winners and losers with everyone’s tax money is bad politics. It is bad for the community’s sense of belonging, and destroys neighborhood businesses and residents alike. Community pride comes from a love of the community and a sense of belonging. Freshly painted, newly-constructed malls may give the look of pride, but it does nothing to promote unity in a neighborhood. That’s somethingthese owners can talk about.
Maybe City Council should ask them before they hand over another piece of pork to people without a personal stake in the neighborhood.
*Eleanor White is the Executive Director of Reclamation of Independence Patriots’ Ink, Inc.