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First on the list: a place to get groceries

Shoppers have been without a local grocery since U-Save closed its store last year.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 25, 2003

When residents here want to buy groceries, they have to go to the Winn-Dixie in neighboring Apollo Beach or to the U-Save in Riverview.

It's been that way since March 2002, when U-Save left its place as the anchor for Twin Oaks Plaza, off U.S. 41 just south of Symmes Road.

The discount grocer pulled out of the plaza with 18 months left on its lease and an option to extend it by another five years, said Edd McGrath, who owns the plaza with partner Will Bissett.

The result: For the past year, residents have lived in a growing area with no grocery store and little chance of getting one before summer. The situation is especially frustrating for McGrath and Bissett, who want to fill the space with another grocery chain store.

Marty Diebold, director of property management for B&B Corporate Holdings, which owns U-Save supermarkets, said the company won't extend its lease, which ends in August.

U-Save, which has 11 stores in Florida, pulled out of Twin Oaks Plaza because there were not enough customers, Diebold said, without disclosing specific figures.

The Riverview U-Save, 4 miles away, is close enough to serve both Riverview and Gibsonton residents, she said.

B&B could not find anyone willing to assume a lease that was so close to ending, Diebold said.

McGrath said he and his partner were willing to consider letting U-Save out of the lease early so that they could fill the 24,000-square-foot space with a new tenant.

"We would have negotiated a lot of things with them (U-Save), but they didn't want to negotiate anything," he said. "These are good people living here, even if they don't have New Tampa pocketbooks, so we just want to serve them well. They need a grocery store."

When Aldyce Garms and her husband moved to Gibsonton 14 years ago, the Twin Oaks Plaza was a neglected shopping strip where homeless men used tree planters as toilets. "It was just like a Third World wasteland," recalled Garms, president of Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton, a civic group who lobbied to get the strip mall cleaned up. "There were times you couldn't even walk along the sidewalk, it was so filthy."

That changed several years ago, when McGrath and Bissett bought the 65,000-square-foot plaza through their brokerage firm, Bissett McGrath Properties Inc. The partners cleaned up the sidewalks, put in bright lights for safety and repaved the parking lot.

Today, the plaza's other suites are full. There's a sheriff's substation, a post office, a nail salon, a coin laundry, a Family Dollar, a furniture rental store and a doctor's office.

The Florida Tropical Fish Farms Association has an office there, too.

"If we can get control of that U-Save lease, we want to get somebody else in there and really freshen things up," McGrath said. "It's about due for another painting, but we're trying to hold it off until we get a new store in there."

Many residents depended on the U-Save for its proximity to their homes. Ever since U-Save left 13 months ago, it has been much more difficult for those without transportation to buy food, Garms said. Some residents depend on the strip plaza's Family Dollar store for canned goods, she said.

"We don't have to have a Publix," she said. "But something would be nice."

- Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 661-2443 or svansickler@sptimes.com

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