Trader Joe’s: Welcome neighbor or scary monster?

If Trader Joe’s does land in St. Pete, what’s the cost to local businesses?

click to enlarge MOTION SICKNESS: Casita Taqueria is moving to the Grand Central District, - reputedly to make way for Trader Joe’s. - SHANNAGILLETTE.COM
MOTION SICKNESS: Casita Taqueria is moving to the Grand Central District, reputedly to make way for Trader Joe’s.

When Olga Bof heard the rumors about Trader Joe’s opening a store on Fourth Street in St. Petersburg, she posted her concerns on the Facebook page of Keep St. Petersburg Local, the business advocacy group she founded.

“We understand that many of you are excited about the possibility of a Trader Joe’s coming to St. Pete,” said the post. “We’re concerned about the five locally-owned, independent businesses that would need to relocate, including our beloved member, Casita Taqueria, if the location is indeed the 2700 block of 4th St.”

So far it’s not clear that Trader Joe’s is in fact opening on that block. The much-drooled-over specialty retail grocery store already has one location in Sarasota, and another opening in South Tampa in 2014. On Tuesday, news reports confirmed that a branch would open in Jacksonville Beach. But there’s still no confirmation from corporate about St. Petersburg. A spokesperson at the company’s California headquarters told CL, “We don’t have a St. Petersburg location to confirm.”

Something’s coming, that’s for sure. Along with Casita, all of the businesses on the 2700 block have been informed by their landlord that the property is being sold, and that the closing date is in January. Businesses affected include Ringside Café (and its 1912 building), the Fourth Street Boxing Gym, Classy Closet, Northeast Pyramid Barber and others.

As Bof discovered, the prospect has plenty of people concerned. KSPL’s Facebook post drew more than 100 lengthy responses.

Amber Bales’ was typical in its mix of positive feelings about the grocery chain and concerns for small business:

“I love Trader Joe’s, but I love Casita Taqueria more — I don’t want to see that area built up with chains, especially when there are plenty of empty Sweetbays around that need to be filled!”

Bof worries about the city’s priorities.

“The city wants Trader Joe’s to come in, but what about the detriment to the little guy? That’s the bigger issue here. That’s the part that’s upsetting us.”

She says there’s an authenticity about Fourth Street that could be lost in the shuffle.

“The 1912 boxing gym, where tons of greats played, can’t be reproduced,” Bof says. “Fourth Street is one of the last blocks that has that feel between the buildings and the trees.”

Casita Taqueria owner Don Arvin echoes her concerns. “Ringside has been there for 25 years. Where are the kids at the boxing club going to go? We can’t stay on Fourth Street without going into a strip mall.”

When Arvin first heard the Trader Joe’s rumor, his first concern was for nearby Rollin’ Oats. The natural foods store at 2842 MLK St. N. started expanding last August from 7,500 square feet to a 15,000-square-foot three-story complex.

Rollin’ Oats manager Mike Asher has heard these concerns before.

“When Fresh Market opened [on Fourth], everyone thought it would be the mecca of health food stores. But once they got in there, they started finding out about us. It’s interesting, but competition is good and we’ve seen a big jump in business.”

And he’s not losing any sleep over Trader Joe’s. Rollin’ Oats has plenty to do, working on its own build-out.

“We’re not really concerned about it,” says Asher. “People who are loyal customers won’t even need to check it out because they’re being taken care of at Rollin’ Oats.”

Asher says the expansion, which now includes a rooftop space, should be complete by early 2014.

Overall, though, City Councilmember Steve Kornell thinks the city needs to improve its relationship with small businesses.

“Why aren’t we as excited about Rollin’ Oats as we are about Trader Joe’s?” Kornell says. “We should have been pushing to help Rollin’ Oats. We should have given tax incentives to them.”

Kornell references the city’s decision to give tax incentives to Sam’s Club on 34th St. S. halfway through construction. Only Kornell and fellow councilmember Karl Nurse opposed that decision.

“We didn’t help small business there,” says Kornell. “I don’t mind if we give advantages to businesses, but not if it hurts small businesses. But we should at least be neutral.”

Kornell uses Kahwa Coffee as an example of a business that started in St. Petersburg and is growing rapidly.

“Why aren’t we reaching out to them?” he asks. “If Starbucks was considering relocating their headquarters here, we’d flock to get them to come here.”

Kornell says developing headquarters for local businesses that are expanding should be a priority. Bof agrees she’d like to see the city reach out to help local businesses in a bigger way.

“Kahwa is already growing quite a lot and if they went on par with something like Starbucks, we wouldn’t be against that,” Bof says. “A lot of Mom and Pops become big companies and that’s great. Growth emanating from St. Pete is something we all benefit from.”

Whole Foods started in Austin, Trader Joe’s in California, and even Starbucks started with a single shop in Seattle.

“If Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods had started here in St. Petersburg, I’d say yay,” she says. “We have Rollin’ Oats, that’s ours.”

Arvin agrees, but notes that his favorite West Coast cities support local above all else.

“Places like Portland and San Francisco don’t support chains,” he points out. “Outback Steakhouses don’t do well in Seattle and that’s a fact.”

In the case of Walmart’s neighborhood market moving into the vacant Sweetbay supermarket in Midtown, Bof admits she was disappointed.

“We had heard about a possible food co-op and that would have ultimately been better,” she says.

But Kornell says no one stepped up to facilitate the program.

“Don’t expect the city to go out and start grocery stores and food co-ops,” Kornell says. “Yes, cities like Austin have them, but someone went out and put it together. If someone steps up, I’m ready to partner on something like that.”

Kornell and Bof hope the St. Petersburg Greenhouse will be able to address this exact issue. The newly opened business assistance and growth center hopes to cultivate entrepreneurial economic development through business, programs, services and partnerships.

“That’s a focus I’d like to see. I think Olga is right on target and that is the direction we need to go,” Kornell says. “We need someone dedicated to helping businesses, especially those poised for growth.”

For Don and Gwen Arvin, who gave birth to their son Jackson just a month ago, moving Casita was never the plan.

“Their name literally means little house in Spanish,” Bof observes. “The name implies something about the building.”

In the last year, the couple invested thousands in a new AC unit, bathroom, and outdoor shed. Money they wouldn’t have spent knowing a move was imminent.

“We just had our two-year anniversary on Saturday and business is up 25 percent from the same time last year,” Arvin laments. “I’m not looking forward to another build-out.”

Right now, Arvin says they will likely move Casita into the Grand Central District.

“I’ve joked that they are going to turn Fourth Street into Restaurant Row and replace all the local guys,” Arvin says. “You can’t go east on Central, the rent is too high, so you have to go west. We hope people will still drive there.”

The Grand Central District is already home to restaurants like Queens Head, Nitally’s, Beak’s and Taco Bus. It’s become somewhat of an outpost for locals looking for the authentic St. Petersburg. Arvin hopes the relocation will be a blessing in disguise.

And if that doesn’t work out?

Arvin laughs, “You’ll find us all in a trailer, down by the river.”

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