Feedback: The Trader Joe’s debate

I Love The Burg's Brian Bailey responds to CL's report.

In last week’s Horror Issue, Food Editor Arielle Stevenson reported on the mixed reactions to the possible arrival in St. Petersburg of Trader Joe’s, which is rumored to be moving into the block presently occupied by several small businesses (one of which, the popular Mexican restaurant Casita Taqueria, has already announced its relocation to the Grand Central District). Among the many reactions generated by the story, we received this response from Brian Bailey, head of creative agency RKC.me in downtown St. Pete and publisher of the Best of the Bay-winning website and Facebook page I Love The ’Burg. It’s an interesting perspective, at once global and local, so we’re running it in full below.

Re “Trader Joe’s: Welcome neighbor or scary monster?” by Arielle Stevenson, Oct. 17:
I find myself somewhat “horrified” at the reaction to the rumored arrival of Trader Joe’s in St. Pete in the recent “Horror Issue” of Creative Loafing.

Having stumbled upon the Saturday Morning Market on Central Avenue while on a business trip in 2005, it was St. Pete’s undeniable independent spirit and magnificent destination potential that drew me to move here after 10 years in Manhattan.

I've championed local businesses and the city since 2009 via iLovetheBurg.com, and personally advocate and practice supporting local more than most. Yet I’m also excited by the potential of our city’s progress when Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are locked in what’s seemingly a race to be first in our area.

I am in total agreement with the concerns over the displacement of five great businesses, but we should re-think pooh-poohing the arrival of a Trader Joe’s in their place. It’s the property owner’s decision of who to sell to and, given Fourth Street’s trend toward chains, we can count ourselves lucky it’s not another fast-food joint. Remember when the legendary local favorite Pepin Restaurant sold to Hooters?

Trader Joe’s will likely create three times the number of jobs in that location, with much more trickle-down to be expected. Property values are sure to rise, and having them is a genuine “quality of life” factor that many companies look for when deciding to do business in a city.

There’s no doubt that St. Pete is becoming a city in demand, and we should continue to welcome the right local and corporate partners, as it is a mix that has already worked so well for us.

Who can forget how the Ft. Lauderdale-based Muvico stood by St. Pete as BayWalk crumbled around them? Movies in the Park would not exist if it were not for the early support of downtown’s State Farm affiliate, the Sylvia Rusche Insurance Agency. The CrossFit phenomenon has brought at least five locally owned affiliates to St. Pete. And we would surely not be getting the first locally based steakhouse in Rococo (a Keep Saint Petersburg Local member) if it were not for the success of its sister brand Ceviche, which is based in Tampa.

As the saying goes, reputation is everything, and organizations like Keep Saint Petersburg Local help local businesses foster meaningful relationships with the community. As someone who lives and works downtown, Casita Taqueria is one of the restaurants I will get in my car and drive to and I intend to follow them wherever they go. As long as their product remains sound, both a Rollin’ Oats and Taqueria will continue to enjoy a dedicated following fueled by word-of-mouth. Just as dedicated as the half-dozen people I know that will get in their cars today and drive to Sarasota just to go to Trader Joe’s. So why not keep that business and those jobs local, too?

To really help local businesses thrive, we need to think more about policy. I cannot imagine anything more anti-business than the county’s current liquor license laws that require either 150 indoor seats or a whopping six figures to buy one. How much more revenue could establishments like Casita, The Queens Head or Sake Bomb experience if they weren’t limited by a law that’s clearly tipped in the favor of bigger players with deeper pockets?

Creating a culture where city after city are run by nothing but local businesses is anti-local-growth and could result in an isolationist mindset whereby businesses without competition can also become pricing monopolies. Let’s turn the focus to a culture of managed growth with like-minded partners, not just any partner. Let’s nurture and enable the responsible growth of our locally owned businesses so they can rightfully grow into new markets, as Kahwa Coffee has, while also welcoming the additions of those that have done amazing things for the cities they were “born” or operate in.

Who knows, maybe Trader Joe’s interest in our city is an entrée to someday finally getting that Apple store. —Brian Bailey