-Mark Parker St. Pete Catalyst
The recently announced closure of a Pinellas Park Walmart Neighborhood Market has county officials concerned for residents – not for people living in that city, but for the 21,500 in nearby Lealman.
According to Google Maps, the unincorporated town sits just over a mile south of the store, at 6900 U.S. Highway 19 N. Pinellas County’s leadership considers Lealman underserved and designated it as a community redevelopment area (CRA).
Local officials have spent time and money to uplift the community, a food desert due to its lack of a single grocer. In addition, Neil Brickfield, executive director of the Pinellas Housing Authority, noted Lealman has one of the lowest vehicle ownership rates in the county.
“Which means a lot of people walk to the grocery store,” added Brickfield. “This is a devastating blow for the residents in that area.”
While there is a Winn-Dixie, a Target and other stores in Pinellas Park, the Neighborhood Market is the closest to Lealman’s geographic center. Many of its residents walk to gas stations for food, and Brickfield said Walmart closing that location leaves “a big hole.”
In a Feb. 8 announcement, corporate officials said the store “did not meet our financial expectations.” It will close March 10, and local leaders are scrambling for solutions.
“Lealman is a classic food desert,” Brickfield said. “Low income, over a mile to access a grocery store. I wish they (retailers) would take into account the neighborhoods they’re in and the challenges those residents face.”
He noted that bringing a grocery store to Lealman has been a top priority for county officials for years. However, despite numerous discussions, corporate representatives have said the community’s demographics do not align with company metrics.
County Commissioner Charlie Justice said that is why he and his colleagues have focused on periodically bringing the St. Pete Free Clinic, Farm Share and other nonprofit organizations that provide fresh fruit and vegetables to Lealman. He noted that nutrition is unavailable to residents who rely on convenience stores for food.
He said several people have worked to establish a permanent nonprofit grocer in the area, but “we just haven’t had the right combination of timing, location and partners.”
“I know it’s a big deal,” Justice said. “If they’re struggling with transportation and buying food at the convenience stores, they’re overpaying for the basics. Publix or Winn-Dixie might be a couple of bus rides away.”
Like Brickfield, Justice relayed his concern that the closure would exacerbate the food desert to colleagues immediately following the announcement. He also noted that South St. Petersburg has struggled with the same problem for years.
City officials bought Tangerine Plaza in 2017 after its Walmart Neighborhood Market closed. Despite multiple efforts, the community around the plaza at 1794 22nd St. S. has remained a food desert ever since.
“Those guys (grocers) are pretty shrewd,” Justice said. “They know what they’re doing. They know where they thrive financially.”
There is hope.
Justice relayed that Publix has a new corporate community relations representative, and the two will soon meet. They will discuss the company’s expansion process and how it could partner with underserved areas.
He also believes recent efforts to uplift Lealman could entice stores to move into the community. Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties is building 14 new homes in the CRA, and Justice said several multifamily projects are in the pipeline.
In addition, he said the county planning department is compiling a food access study that will help inform the decision-making process.
“We want to work with a Publix or a Winn Dixie or an Aldi and say, ‘you know, we’re investing a lot, and we want you to come and be a part of this on the ground floor,’” Justice added. “And I’m hopeful that one of those entities will see the light and come join us in the future of Lealman.”
However, he noted that the lack of department and grocery stores could dissuade people from moving to the area in the first place. Justice said county officials need those businesses to improve the current quality of life and to attract the next generation of Lealman residents.
He said subsidizing and incentivizing companies to move into the community is “certainly a possibility.” Easing zoning or parking restrictions are also an option, but all would require regulatory planning and a willing partner.
“If there was a Publix or one of those grocery stores that wanted to come to Lealman – we’re all ears,” Justice said. “We’ll work to make it happen.”