You can’t even climb into Alan DeWitte’s truck without a safety briefing.
“Three points of contact,” DeWitte said, opening the door of his cab and pointing to plastic handles and stainless steel steps. “You want two hands and one foot, or one hand and two feet.”
Only after I had absorbed this lesson was I allowed to begin the least hazardous reporting assignment imaginable: a ride to the Land O’Lakes Walmart Supercenter with DeWitte, 61, who recently became the first driver in the 21-year history of the company’s Hernando County distribution center to cover 3 million miles without causing an accident.
That’s six trips to and from the moon, 120 times around the Earth and more than 30 times farther than I made it before totaling my last two cars, which is one reason that I wanted to know more about DeWitte’s accomplishment. I couldn’t imagine being so careful for so long, “as good the last mile as the first one,” said his boss, transportation manager James R. Smith.
Also, it’s a sign of the vastness of a distribution system that we rarely see and routinely take for granted. We expect our Supercenters to be fully stocked and don’t think much about what it takes to make that happen.
With more than 1,000 workers, the center rivals the county’s two hospitals as Hernando County’s largest private employers. The corrugated steel building covers 39 acres. When DeWitte led me inside to see the electric-blue, brand-new work truck that will be presented to him on Friday as his reward for hitting the 3 million-mile mark, it looked as if it were parked in the middle of a slightly scaled-down city — ceiling-high stacks of merchandise like blocks of office buildings, forklifts buzzing up and down the aisles like traffic on busy streets.
The center, the first in the state, is now is one of six. DeWitte is one of 110 drivers there. Because of his seniority, his route allows him to return home to Spring Hill and his wife, Donna, every evening. But starting at 4 a.m., he hits enough destinations that his itinerary sounds like a condensed Central Florida version of I’ve Been Everywhere. Stops include the Brooksville Distribution Center (actually near Ridge Manor), stores in Inverness and Valrico, beverage depots in Tampa and Ocala, another distribution center in Arcadia.
It adds up to “10 drop-and-loads,” 500 miles and close to the maximum of 12 hours that truckers can legally drive each day, five days a week. His truck is usually filled close to capacity, about 38,000 pounds. The company did not disclose the total tonnage that passes through the distribution center every year, but, clearly, it’s a whole lot.
The easy, 70-mile drive to Land O’Lakes and back was assigned to him for my benefit, I found out after we left, and not part of his usual schedule. But it was typical in most other ways.
His load was general merchandise rather than groceries, though the only specific items listed on his bill of lading were the few hazardous ones, including a case of disposable butane lighters and camp stove fuel.
He entered the information about his load and trip on a small computer. He checked the gauges measuring the air pressure of his brakes. He fastened his seat belts, of course, and made sure that I did, too.read more
Wal-Mart serves as a mecca for all things needed for home, work or play. But what many may not know is that Wal-Mart is also the source for one single mother of six getting off the streets. Once homeless with no job and no family to turn to, LaTonya Bell was blessed with an unforgettable experience.
The 34-year-old Georgia native didn’t know where to turn when her friend announced to her that she would be moving out of the studio apartment that she and her six children were calling home. Bell’s mother had been murdered years earlier, so she took it upon herself to move to Miami at the spur of the moment.
“I was just tired of everything and I wanted a new start,” she said.
That was in November 2012, when Bell, along with her children ranging in age from two to 18, came to South Florida in hopes of a better life. She hoped to escape a slew of troubles, including a physically abusive boyfriend.
The first of many blessings came pouring in when her case manager at the homeless shelter in which she and her children were living told her that the producers from the television show, “The Doctors,” were in search of a female candidate to appear on the show to receive a smile makeover by Dr. Karent Sierra, a regular on the Housewives of Miami.
“I felt that jobs never called me back because once I opened my mouth to speak, they were judging me,” Bell said. “I would never get a call back.”
Several months later, one of the producers reached out to Sonia Jacobson, the founder and executive director of Dress for Success Miami.
More blessings to come
Next, Bell learned that Wal-Mart had teamed up with Dress for Success Miami to provide her with a professional makeover. Through the partnership, Dress for Success Miami was able to connect LaTonya with a job opportunity at the Goulds location.
“She was a lovely woman that was very determined to find a job to help provide for her children,” Jacobson said.
A Miami zoning board denied an appeal by a group of activists Wednesday to stop giant retailer Walmart from building in Midtown Miami, all but guaranteeing a final showdown before Miami commissioners.
With its 6-4 vote, the city’s Planning & Zoning Appeals Board brushed aside residents’ concerns of traffic woes and limited green space, saying its scope was limited strictly to Midtown Miami’s zoning laws.
“What’s before us is the appeal. It’s not about Walmart,” said board member Juvenal Pina, who voted to deny the appeal.
Immediately after the vote, mortgage broker Grant Stern vowed yet another appeal, this time to Miami commissioners. He promised to take the issue a step further to the Miami-Dade County Circuit Court, if the commission — like the zoning board — opts to follow the August ruling of Planning Director Francisco Garcia, who granted Walmart the permit needed to build.
“This is not the end of the fight,” said Stern. “We’ll take what we have, refine it, and send it on its way.”
Stern and a group of local residents and business owners have spent the past 18 months fighting Walmart’s plan to build a 203,000-square-foot superstore in funky Midtown Miami’s south end. Wednesday, they argued unsuccessfully that even though Garcia granted the permit, the Walmart plan requires a public hearing and variances because of a lack of setbacks, too many loading bays, and the changing of a street configuration.
More specifically, they argue the Walmart plan needs variances, which require public hearings, because the upper two floors are not set back the required 10 feet, because 31st Street is changing from two to three lanes, because Walmart is building five loading bays when only three are permitted, and because there is no liner on the blank south wall.
Walmart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said he was confident city commissioners would support the appeal board’s ruling.
“We’ve already received approval, and we’re confident in our plan,” said Lopez.
Wednesday’s decision came after close to five hours of pleas and arguments from concerned citizens, Stern and his supporters, and a lengthy stream of attorneys on behalf of the retail giant. It marked the latest chapter in an 18-month ordeal that has seen recommended denials of the Walmart plan by two review boards, and several impromptu meetings as the sides squared off.
Walmart is seeking to build a three-level, 203,000-square-foot superstore, with parking for 577 vehicles on the top two floors. The retailer said it means 300 jobs and a shopping alternative for local customers. The building would be constructed between Northeast 29th and 31st streets, and Midtown Boulevard and North Miami Avenue. The architecture is slightly unconventional, with smaller retail outlets lining parts of the exterior and palm trees covering much of the parking area.
A South Florida mother was homeless and trying to take care of her six children before coming face to face with a life-changing opportunity.
Thirty-four-year-old Latonya Bell counts her blessings everyday. “I look at my kids, and I look at everything we’ve gone through, and I’m just happy,” Bell said. “Sometimes, at night before I go to work, I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m really going to work.’”
Just a few months ago, Bell and her family led a very different life. “We were in the shelter for six months, and I had been looking for a home for me and my kids, and it’s been very hard,” Bell said.
Bell now has a job, able to put a roof over her head and put food on the table for her and her six children. “Being able to work for Walmart is like a blessing for me,” Bell said.
Months prior, Bell decided to make a change and accomplish her dream, and with help from an organization called Dress for Success, Bell learned to dress professionally, as well as how to land a job. “I worked with her personally, and I coached her a little bit on going on the job interview,” Founder of Dress for Success Sonia Jacobson said. “We tried very hard to help her find a job, and so of course, knowing that she was living down in this neighborhood and the new store was opening, we worked very hard with the Walmart executives to interview her and then hire her.”
The managers at Walmart called Bell a very good employee. “Always on the move and always looking for something to do,” Walmart store manager Eric Burgains said. “She’s awesome.”
In what could be a boost for Mayor Bill Foster’s bid to stay in office, city officials announced Monday that Wal-Mart is opening a Neighborhood-Market store at the Midtown location vacated by Sweetbay in February.
The retail giant has agreed to a 13-year lease that will bring almost 100 jobs to one of the city’s poorest neighborhood. The 39,000-square-foot store on 22nd Street South is scheduled to open Jan. 1, but hiring and training will likely start in December, city leaders said.
The store’s opening can hardly come soon enough for nearby residents who for months have been without a grocery store within walking distance. The Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market is also expected to bring relief to neighboring stores in the Tangerine Plaza shopping center, whose business slumped after Sweetbay closed.
“This is something very exciting and transformative to the City of St. Petersburg,” Foster said.
Foster’s response to the Midtown grocery’s closing — one of 30 closed in Florida and nine in Pinellas County — has been cited by leaders of the black community and critics as an example of his poor leadership. The city invested $1.3 million to develop Tangerine Plaza to bring a grocery store to Midtown, one of several projects intended to rejuvenate the area.
Sweetbay officials said they warned Foster roughly a year before announcing the closure that the store was losing money. His opponent in November’s general election, Rick Kriseman, said Foster did not act quickly enough to prevent the store sitting empty.
“As mayor, I would have begun the process of recruiting another grocery store that same day,” he said in a statement. “This is unfortunate and speaks to the lack of leadership coming out of City Hall.”
Foster said he worked hard to convince Sweetbay to keep the store open and even made a trip to Gainesville to meet with company executives.
Deadlocked in the most recent poll, winning more support from black voters could be crucial for Foster, who trailed Kriseman in most precincts in South St. Petersburg during the primary election.
Any boost in the polls will depend on whether the community thinks Foster played a hand in recruiting Wal-Mart, said Manuel Sykes, pastor of the Bethel Community Baptist Church on 54th Avenue South.
“I think that if there is an assumption that he did then it probably will help him,” Sykes said. “Cautious people would want to know for sure what his role was in it.”
Wal-Mart’s lease includes six five-year options to extend, meaning the store could be there for a total of 43 years under the agreement, said Larry Newsome, head of Urban Development Solutions, which is the landlord of the plaza.
Negotiations with Wal-Mart began in March. They were complicated by the 13-year outstanding lease that Sweetbay still had for the store and because the city owns the land.
The deal also included a $300,000 donation from The Edwards Group. Roughly $200,000 of that will go to a maintenance reserve fund for the plaza, said former Mayor Rick Baker, president of the company, which manages the Mahaffey Theater and bought and is renovating the BayWalk shopping plaza downtown. Fixing up and painting stripes on the parking lot will use up $50,000 of that money, and the remainder will be used as seed money to fill the one vacant unit at the plaza with Midtown Shops, a cooperative of small retailers that could not afford to rent an entire storefront, Baker said.
“Bill Edwards has long believed in the Midtown effort,” he said.
During talks with Wal-Mart officials, Foster offered assurances that any permit applications would be fast-tracked.
“I said, ‘If you want a midnight concrete pouring, I can do it,’ ” Foster said.
Monday afternoon, Meme’s Beauty Gallery, located a few doors from the empty grocery store, was quiet.
Business has dropped by 40 percent since Sweetbay closed, said owner Jamekka Harris, who has struggled to pay her rent. She is optimistic that some of Wal-Mart’s customers will come her way.
“It’s been real hard; we need traffic flow,” she said. “I was about ready to leave.”
A Walmart “neighborhood market” is to open in January at a site vacated by Sweetbay.
The official word is out: Walmart is going into the Midtown space that Sweetbay vacated in February.
The retail giant announced Monday that it will operate a “neighborhood market,” meaning groceries and pharmacy only. The store, at the Tangerine Plaza at 22nd Street and 18th Avenue S, should open in January and expects to employ up to 95 people.
The 39,000-square-foot store will be welcomed by area residents, many without cars, who have been taking one or two buses to buy groceries and medicine or going without.
The deal also bodes well for St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, who has been criticized for being unable to prevent Sweetbay from leaving and not recruiting a new grocery store to replace it. He is in a tight re-election campaign against Rick Kriseman.
The city spent $1.4 million in public money to build Tangerine Plaza, where the community’s only supermarket opened in 2005. Urban Development Solutions, headed by Larry Newsome, is the shopping center’s landlord.
Walmart will host a news conference with local officials on Oct. 7 to open a temporary hiring center at 1201 22nd St. S. Applications for both full-time and part-time jobs will be accepted from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Interested applicants may also apply online at careers.walmart.com.
Bill Edwards, mortgage magnate and increasingly the city’s white knight, was praised by Foster and others at a Monday afternoon news conference for playing a key role in securing Walmart. He donated $300,000 to the nonprofit Urban Development Solutions, according to former mayor Rick Baker, president of the Edwards Group.
Of that, $50,000 will finance upgrades to the shopping center including the already resurfaced parking lot, and $50,000 will be seed money to start a marketplace where about 10 community entrepreneurs will lease space and sell goods. The biggest chunk, $200,000, goes into a building reserve fund that will allow UDS to meet the criteria needed to refinance its debt and make a payment of around $5 million due in February, Newsome said.
Foster said he assured Walmart the permitting process for its renovation of Tangerine Plaza will be streamlined so it can stay on schedule to open in January.
“You want to do a midnight concrete pour you can do it. You want to do an inspection at 3 a.m., I’ll be there in my hard hat,” he recounted.
In January, Sweetbay was lambasted by politicians and community activists when the grocer announced it was breaking its lease and closing the Midtown store. But as they gathered in front of the empty store to dub Walmart as the community’s savior, there was praise for Sweetbay as well.
“The reason Walmart is coming really is because Sweetbay came in the beginning,” Newsome said. He declined to say how much Sweetbay paid to compensate for breaking its lease but considered it fair.
“Sweetbay was okay, but God always has something better in the bush,” said community activist Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter. “Thank you, Walmart.”
The nearest Walmart is just a mile away at 3501 34th St S.
Within minutes of Walmart announcing the store via a news release, Kriseman sent out a statement praising the retailer but criticizing Foster for a lack of leadership on the issue.
“The residents of Midtown should not have been without a grocery store at Tangerine Plaza for this long,” he said. “Sweetbay officials warned Mr. Foster about their struggling Midtown store nearly a year before the company made a formal announcement. As mayor, I would have begun the process of recruiting another grocery store that same day.”
Foster questioned how Kriseman knew when he learned the store was struggling and said he had no prior knowledge before the closing was announced.
“This is a great event for the people of St. Petersburg and the people of Midtown,” he said. “A little rain and negativity isn’t going to take away from that. If this were politically driven don’t you think there would have been an announcement before the primary?”
Baker, who has withheld an endorsement of either candidate, gave Foster a hearty handshake and pat on the arm at the news conference. Asked later if this meant he was supporting him for mayor, Baker said it was not a political event and he wasn’t making an endorsement yet. He did describe Foster as a “key player” in the negotiations with Walmart and other retailers that started in early March.
Henry Eng, 64, who lives nearby, wants to be first in line when the Walmart employment center opens in October. “I’m almost retired, but I don’t have enough to retire on,” he said. “I am ready for them to start hiring.”
Few things are more vital in a low-income neighborhood than easy access to a grocery store. So news that Walmart will open one of its smaller grocery markets in the former Sweetbay store in St. Petersburg’s Midtown is a welcome development in a neighborhood where many residents are without cars and jobs are scarce.
Walmart will open a hiring center next month in anticipation of a January opening, and Mayor Bill Foster said city staff will make sure the permitting process fits that timeline. The opening will come 11 months after the Sweetbay closed and Foster took heat for not doing more to help the grocer lured to Tangerine Plaza in 2005 during former Mayor Rick Baker’s administration.
Just like before, the Walmart deal required broader community effort, including a generous $300,000 donation from philanthropist Bill Edwards to finance site improvements and shore up the nonprofit landlord for the plaza. Edwards’ gift will also provide seed money for a marketplace at the plaza where entrepreneurs can rent space and sell goods. Eight years after Tangerine Plaza opened, Walmart’s announcement gives it a fresh chance to spur economic activity for Midtown.
Twenty teachers from CL Salter Elementary School in Talladega received $50 reward cards from Wal-Mart to purchase classroom supplies from company’s Teacher Rewards Program. The nationwide program provides 90,000 teachers with the rewards donating $4.5 million to help offset teachers’ classroom costs. The teachers receiving the cars were, front row, Careshia Dye, Tashena Whitson, Ashley Hester, Susan Gaskin, Linda Varnedore, Mary Sims, Betty Street, Erin Thielker and April Noel; on the back row are Mark Darby, Natasha Garrett, Stephanie Shield, Becky Armstrong, Lisa Smith, Shannan Cochran, Betsy McDaniel, Misty Gallman and Pam Akers. of Dallas.
SAGE begins jobs, skills training for LGBT people 40 and above; Wal-Mart Foundation donates $300,000
The Wal-Mart Foundation has donated $300,000 to provide employment and skills training for older LGBT adults in South Florida and five other communities.
“It will help them get jobs. It will also get them access to training, some seminars for job skills, résumé writing and cover letters, said Bruce Williams, senior services coordinator for the Pride Center in Wilton Manors.
SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders) announced the Wal-Mart Foundation grant this week. The national organization will use the money to enhance existing SAGEWorks programs in Chicago, New York City, Denver, Philadelphia and Palm Springs, and to begin a new program in South Florida.
“Economic security is vital to healthy aging, and SAGEWorks provides LGBT older people with the training and resources they need to navigate today’s job market,” said Michael Adams, SAGE’s executive director in New York. “This important grant from Wal-Mart will allow us to extend the program’s reach, offering many more LGBT elders across the nation access to employment opportunities and financial stability.”
For over 20 years, Walmart has served the residents of Cooper City at its location on Flamingo Road.
As the new Cooper City store manager, I have the privilege of working alongside 460 associates from this community. Some members of the team have been at this location since it originally opened and have seen the transformation from a small store to a super center in response to strong demand for affordable shopping options from area residents.
Our Cooper City store has spurred other small businesses to flourish in our shopping center and nearby shopping centers alike. In addition, the store has also supported numerous community organizations through donations of over $140,000 over the last 10 years.