Around 1,200 people live in downtown Lakeland and there will be 7,000 people who work there by Friday when Summit Consulting employees finish moving into their new eight-story, $50-million headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue.
But while you can enjoy a steak dinner, listen to live music, and browse through retail shops downtown, if you want to buy a candy bar or a gallon of milk, you need to go for a drive or a long walk because grocery and convenience store corporations say there aren’t enough people living downtown to justify building and operating one.
Yohansi and Amaury Santana, who have owned and operated the Divicious Cafe for eight years at the corner of Tennessee Avenue and Main Street, say their small business will go where corporations won’t tread when they open a small grocery store on Munn Park by Thanksgiving.
The Santanas plan to open a 1,500-square-foot grocery/convenience store in the 106 N. Tennessee Ave. space that Silver Ring Cafe has occupied since 1986. They’re calling it bodega Market, with a lower-case b.
Forgue General Contracting will begin transforming the cafe into bodega Market after Silver Ring’s lease expires on Aug. 31, announced Kate Lake, who owns the two-story building at the intersection of Tennessee and Main Street that houses Silver Ring, Divicious Cafe, and several other businesses, including her own My Offices & More.
Finding space for a small grocery/convenience store has been “a conversation that has been going on for a year-and-a-half” with the Santanas, said Lake, a member of the Lakeland Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) advisory board who has owned the building since 2015.
“This is what downtown Lakeland needs,” Amaury Santana said, noting he and his wife have run small grocery/convenience stores in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and in New York. “We have a little experience.”
Santana said bodega Market will try to stock “a little bit of everything” and is seeking collaboration with Lakeland producers for fresh bread products and local produce.
The announcement was attended by Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz, CRA Manager and Assistant City Community Development Director Alis Drumgo, Lakeland Downtown Development Authority Director Julie Townsend, and Lakeland Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Amy Wiggins, among others.
Mutz said with the Lakeland City Commission Monday approving a seven-story, “at least” 200-unit apartment building on nearby Oak Street, the goal of having 8,500 people living downtown within the next eight years is attainable.
That 8,500 number is significant because corporate grocery and convenience store retailers say that many people must be living within a specified radius to make an operation profitable, he said.
Until that happens — and the city, CRA, and downtown development agency are actively encouraging residential development downtown — Mutz said it is going to require the “creative magic” of people like the Santanas and Lake to make downtown better “piece after piece after piece.”
Lakeland is “at an inevitable juncture in the growth of downtown” with the emphasis on “we do it right and do it wisely,” Mutz said. “This is a great change, immediately, for downtown to make it more livable.”
Wiggins, noting it is Small Business Week, praised the Santanas for investing in a venture that will help make downtown more of a community instead of a Monday-through-Friday business center and weekend entertainment node.
“Small businesses are addressing the needs of the community. We don’t have to look elsewhere,” she said.
Wiggins said that the market and other development will have a “ripple effect” downtown, giving residents a sense of identity and involvement: “If they live and work downtown, they are engaged in downtown.”
The last attempt at a downtown convenience market, The General Store at 125 S. Kentucky Ave., closed in 2013 after a six-year run. But that was before the development of downtown apartment complexes such as Mirrorton and NoBay and at a time when there were fewer people working downtown.
UPDATE: After this article was published, we received the following message from Terisa Glover, who owned The General Store: “Yep. My General Store was before its time We were open 6 days a week 8-6 and featured local authors and artisans as well as nostalgic candies, toys and sodas in addition to the staples. It was not for lack of effort that we had to close the doors.
Best wishes to bodega – if anyone can make it work, they can!”
Currently the closest convenience store for downtown residents is the Lake Morton Market and Deli on Palmetto Street. Located across from the Polk Museum of Art, the market was renovated and menu items added in early 2020.
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