Long before Tampa City Council member Luis Viera had his code enforcement eyes trained on the AMC movie theater at Highwoods Preserve, they were focused like a laser on the long-shuttered former Sweetbay grocery store right across Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. from the theater.

The Sweetbay building was filthy, and the parking lot was not only overgrown with weeds and other vegetation, but sometimes, it was virtually overflowing with tractor-trailers and parked storage trucks.

Sometimes, it was a dumping ground for people’s cast-off furniture, appliances and clothes.

Efforts to clean the area were sometimes successful, but little by little, the parking lot adjacent to Home Depot would revert to its former rundown status. “What it needs,” Viera has said, “is a new tenant.”

For the first time since the Sweetbay store closed in 2013, that is actually a possibility — although it won’t be anytime too soon.

According to John Neukamm, the attorney for KNK Tampa, Ltd., the California-based owners of the building, prospective purchasers and tenants have begun reaching out to his client in advance of the property becoming available in November 2020.

There have been countless stories swirling about the reasons behind the building staying empty for the past seven years. The Sweetbay store is practically a New Tampa landmark, but not in a good way. Viera has argued that it is arguably New Tampa’s most notorious eyesore.

“That’s unfortunate,” Neukamm says. “My client didn’t want it to be that way.”

Here’s the story:

In February of 1999, the property, then owned by Walter Property Investments, LLC, was leased to Kash ‘n Karry Tampa, Ltd., for a 20-year term, beginning with the completed construction of the building, which was in November of that year.

In 2001, KNK Tampa, Ltd., which has no relation to Kash ‘n Karry, bought the property, which is currently worth $1.54 million, according to Hillsborough County property tax records.

Kash ‘n Karry continued to operate under the lease until June 14, 2006, when its Belgian parent company Delhaize America Inc. converted it to a Sweetbay Supermarket, where whole pineapples and cookies were handed out to customers at its happy New Tampa grand opening.

In January of 2013, however, Publix and Walmart had each only strengthened their respective holds on the Tampa Bay grocery market, and Delhaize announced it would be closing 22 stores in the Tampa Bay area, including its New Tampa location.

In October of 2013, Jacksonville-based Bi-Lo Holdings, the parent company of Winn-Dixie, paid $265 million for 72 Sweetbay stores, plus the leases to 10 other underperforming Sweetbay supermarkets that had already been closed, one being the New Tampa location.

The New Tampa lease had six years remaining at the time. However, if there were attempts by either Delhaize and Bi-Lo Holdings to negotiate its way out of the lease, they failed. 

Subleasing would have been another option, but with such little time remaining on Sweetbay’s lease, it was likely a tough sell considering what it would have cost to properly renovate the building.

Bi-Lo Holdings has continued to pay the rent at the New Tampa location. Those monthly lease payments will come to an end in November. 

“Because we are a year out from that day, we have started to open up a dialogue with prospective purchasers and tenants,” Neukamm says. “We have been contacted already by a number of folks who are interested.”

Over the years, a number of brokers have inquired about selling the property, but Neukamm says his clients felt talks were premature because of the existing lease. 

He says there will “likely” be a new owner or tenant in place by this time next year.

And, what does Viera, who says he has been asked countless questions about the old Sweetbay since being elected in 2016, think about the possible elimination of the area’s most prominent vacant store?

“It’s about time,” he says. “It’s about time.”

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