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    Plan for downtown grocery takes shape

    City planners like the idea for the shopping plaza, but want it to match Clearwater's vision for the area.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- Downtown Clearwater could gain a new 27,000-square-foot chain grocery store that would be nestled in a new shopping plaza with a drug store, bank and video store on S Fort Harrison Avenue by August 2002.

    Clearwater developer Jim White has a contract to buy about 8 acres of land from car dealer Larry Dimmitt Sr. on Fort Harrison for such a project, said both White and Dimmitt's real estate agent, Mark Klein. The terms of the deal still are confidential.

    White said Monday that it was too early to name the anchor grocery store or any of the other tenants that would be in the plaza. He still is negotiating leases.

    However, city officials said that Publix has been interested in the location, which is close to Belleair and downtown neighborhoods such as Harbor Oaks.

    "I think there's a strong market for that there," said city Planning Director Ralph Stone. "In most urban areas, downtowns really compete for a grocery store. There have been three groups that have talked to us about some kind of retail there, and two of the three included a grocery store."

    Residents of subdivisions near downtown now have to drive across the city to shop at groceries along Missouri Avenue, frequent local open-air vegetable markets or fight beach traffic to go to a grocery store in Island Estates. White noted that thousands of employees also work downtown, and there are new apartments and areas being primed for townhomes and condominiums nearby.

    "I think it is a very strong market for this kind of project," White said.

    The possible grocery site -- on the market for the past four years -- is on the east side of Fort Harrison Avenue, from Druid Road to Turner Street. The land, mostly covered by asphalt, was the site of Cadillac and Chevrolet car dealerships that Dimmitt and his sons moved to U.S. 19 more than a decade ago. Green Klein & Heuchan Inc. Realtors signs dot the properties.

    "We feel very, very good about this," Klein said last week. "The project is moving along pretty well."

    Until now, the property has been the venue for numerous proposals that went nowhere, including ideas to build townhomes, a drug store, a Hyde Park-like shopping area, a new building for the Salvation Army and a grocery store in a neighborhood shopping plaza.

    "He's been marketing that property ever since I got to town," Stone said.

    The one hitch to the grocery store idea, Stone said, is that the traditional, suburban grocery store doesn't mesh with the city's vision for the look of S Fort Harrison. The city doesn't want a suburban-style store, with acres of parking in front of it, along Fort Harrison.

    The city would rather see Fort Harrison become more of a pedestrian main street for that part of Clearwater, with stores at the edge of the sidewalk, inviting passers-by in, Stone said.

    "When people have come in to talk to us over the past year, what we've told them is we want an urban type of retail as opposed to a suburban kind of shopping center," Stone said.

    White said that his development company was still working on a site plan that will please city officials and tenants. The grocery store could face south, and tenants such as a video store could be on Fort Harrison to suit the city's requirements. The landscaping and the facade of the building would have to fit with the city's vision, too.

    "There's a bunch of issues with trying to put it on the street and really make it a downtown scape," White said. "But we'll make sure that it fits in with the city's goals for that district."

    White used to oversee real estate development for the Checkers fast food chain. He has worked with other partners on neighborhood shopping centers and other projects in several Tampa Bay area cities during the past two years that he's had his own company. White said Jared and Gregg Brown, the sons of former Checkers chairman Herb Brown, are his partners in developing the Fort Harrison shopping center.

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