Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration has confirmed Publix is planning to expand in the Mobile market and is expected to choose one of three local sites. City spokeswoman Laura Byrne said the administration didn’t have a preference on the location and would be “happy” with whatever decision Publix makes.
Earlier this week, Councilman Fred Richardson announced that a major, “first-tier” grocery store is eyeing two potential sites in his district, including the former Augusta Evans School on Florida Street north of Old Shell Road. Richardson said the other possible site is the undeveloped property on the southeast corner of Dauphin Street and Sage Avenue. He said a third site, at Pinehill Drive and Government Boulevard, also is being considered, with a decision from the developer expected by the end of the month.
Richardson acknowledged the Augusta Evans site would require a commitment from the city in order to widen a street, but said he favors that location. He believes the other locations are too close to existing grocery stores.
“During the Map for Mobile [process], citizens asked for a nice retail market in Midtown,” Richardson said, citing the city’s newly approved comprehensive plan. “Citizens support it.”
The street widening would cost between $500,000 and $600,000, but would be worth it, Richardson said, because of the tax revenue the store could generate. He also argued the city has made similar improvements for other projects, such as for UMS-Wright, where the city widened Mobile Street, and for Airbus, where improvements were made to Broad Street and Michigan Avenue. Richardson added the city installed a traffic light for the new Whole Foods on Airport Boulevard.
“I’ve never known a developer to widen a road,” Richardson said. “We own the roads.”
Dwaine Stevens, a spokesman for Publix, wrote in an email that he couldn’t comment while lease agreements are pending.
Richardson said he supports the location at the former school and characterized the area as “a food desert.” But Jack Greer, vice president of the local grocery chain Greer’s, refuted that claim. He said with stores in Crichton, Five Points and on Dauphin Street near Interstate 65, at least three of his stores are within a mile of the Augusta Evans location.
Greer said although he believes in a free market where family-owned stores aren’t afraid to compete, he believes Mobile’s retail grocery market is already oversaturated and there’s no need to add another store in Midtown.
“Greer’s is going to do whatever we can to compete,” he said. “We’ve got to earn it. We’ve got to do a good job.”
While companies will argue to leaders about creating jobs and tax revenue, Greer said that’s a fallacy in retail. In actuality, he said, the jobs and tax revenue will just transfer from one store to another.
“The city and the politicians need to be smarter and not be fooled into thinking those are new jobs, or new tax revenues,” Greer said. “This is a smokescreen.”
He said he’s also against the city spending money to support the development, like it did for Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and Costco.
“I don’t think it’s right for the city to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize development,” Greer said. “I don’t know where the logic for this is.”
The corporate grocers not only compete with local grocers, but also present a challenge to local pharmacies and other retail shops and don’t allow for a diverse economy, Greer argued. But even as competition encroaches, he said, his family’s stores have an advantage. For one, he said, they use local suppliers, which hire local workers, to stock their stores.
“We hope people will appreciate shopping local,” he said.
In addition, Greer said, they feel the quality and prices are better than some of the chains they compete with.
Greer is not the only person with concerns over the placement of a new Publix. Betsy Swinson asked neighbors on nextdoor.com to sign a petition in opposition to the proposed location at the Augusta Evans site. Swinson wrote she’d support the store if her concerns were alleviated.
She wrote she doesn’t want the store to exacerbate a “horrendous traffic situation” at the intersection of Old Shell Road and Florida Street. This could be accomplished, she wrote, by adding a turn lane.
Swinson would also support the project if “$1 million” wasn’t required from the city and if it were scaled down so as to not infringe upon nearby residential property. In addition, Swinson complained the proposed development would require the destruction of five oak trees.
Unlike Richardson, Swinson feels the plan is not aligned with the new Map for Mobile guidelines because it doesn’t “foster strong neighborhoods with a unique identity and sense of place, according to her post on nextdoor.com.
“It would instead provide an increased traffic situation that would make walking to our locally owned establishments hazardous and would bring a nasty taste of West Mobile to our Midtown neighborhoods,” she wrote. “There is a reason we all chose to live in Midtown. It would undermine the distinct feel of our community.”