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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Oct. 31, 201901:09 PM EST

Rowe’s wants to take over Publix space at Gateway Town Center

Southeastern Grocers also is doing due diligence on the location, which will close Dec. 28.

By Karen Brune Mathis & Mike Mendenhall • Staff Writers

Rowe’s IGA Supermarkets might replace Publix at Gateway Town Center soon after it closes Dec. 28.

Rob Rowe, owner of Rowe’s IGA Supermarkets, said Thursday he has a letter of intent with the Gateway landlord to lease the 28,120 square feet of space, pending the termination of Publix’s lease.

“Right now I know that when Publix is done we will work with the landlord to go in there,” Rowe said.

Rowe said his group has an interest in doing a deal, "but we have a whole process to go through."

Rob Rowe, owner of Rowe’s IGA Supermarkets, said Thursday he has a letter of intent to lease the space after Publix closes.

“If they are closing in December and the landlord is successful, then we will be able to go in fairly soon after Publix vacates,” he said.

Rowe doesn’t foresee delays.

“I would believe that everybody would work together to be able to open it as soon as possible,” he said.

Jacksonville-based Southeastern Grocers Inc., which operates the Winn-Dixie and Harveys Supermarkets banners, also is interested but didn’t say it has a letter of intent.

“SEG is always looking at opportunities to serve communities throughout our footprint. This particular opportunity is a unique situation and we’re currently doing our due diligence to assess how we can potentially meet the needs of all parties involved,” said Joe Caldwell, senior manager of corporate communications, in an email.

Lakeland-based Publix Super Markets Inc. announced Friday night that it would close its store at Gateway Town Center at 5210 Norwood Ave. in the Brentwood area after leasing there for almost 20 years.

“We’ve been privileged to serve the Gateway community for two decades and are approaching the end of our lease at this location,” Publix spokesman Dwaine Stevens said.

“While it is always a difficult decision to make, we have decided to close this store by the end of 2019,” he said.

He did not elaborate on reasons for closing the store.

Customers, supporters and city and community leaders quickly said they wanted Publix to stay or for the landlord to open another grocery store there because the area did not have easy access to other stores.

The absence of a grocer there would create a food desert, defined as an area without a grocery store within a mile.

The closest Publix stores are several miles away and other grocers are near the food desert threshold at 0.9 miles and 1.2 miles away.

Some customers said they and some of the employees did not have cars and rely on walking or public transportation to reach Publix.

Rowe, who is based in Jacksonville, operates five Rowe’s IGA Supermarkets in Jacksonville and Orange Park.

He is familiar with the city’s food desert assistance because he intends to open a Rowe’s early next year at the 49,000-square-foot Harveys Supermarket that closed in spring 2018 at 1020 Edgewood Ave. N.

That will happen with the assistance of $750,000 from the Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Fund to help bring full-service grocery stores to Northwest Jacksonville.

Legislation is moving through City Council for that assistance.

Rowe said Thursday morning he has not spoken with the city about assistance for the Gateway Town Center location, but was aware the food-desert program assistance is available for the Publix location.

“I was told to get back to them after I make the plans,” he said.

Reggie Gaffney

District 7 Council member Reggie Gaffney said Friday the city could offer the next tenant for the Publix space $500,000 to $700,000 from the fund.

Rowe said he has an understanding with the landlord, Gator Investments LLC, that Rowe’s IGA Supermarkets wants to lease the space, but the landlord first must complete the lease termination with Publix. “If everybody cooperates, you can get things done,” he said.

The Publix store is smaller than other Rowe’s stores, of which the smallest is 34,000 square feet.

“We’ll have to make some adjustments,” he said.

Publix employs about 130 people at the Gateway Town Center store. Stevens said Friday that Publix has not had a layoff in its almost 90-year history and the company will offer Gateway’s 130 store associates positions at a neighboring location if they desire. 

Rowe said his group would like to talk to the employees after he has an agreement to lease the store. He said the landlord would need to simultaneously work out a lease termination with Publix and a new lease with him.

Gaffney, who courted Southeastern Grocers, said Thursday morning he expects a deal could be reached with a new grocery tenant within two weeks. 

He said he received Mayor Lenny Curry’s initial support to offer incentives during a meeting Tuesday. 

Details of a grant award and a redevelopment agreement would be drafted by the city’s Office of Economic Development and would require Council approval.

In 2018, Council earmarked $3 million in the Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Fund to address food desert-related issues.

Ordinance 2019-245, enacted in April, allows the city to award up to $1.5 million or 40% of capital costs to bring full-service grocery stores to Northwest Jacksonville. 

While some city leaders urged Publix to stay, Gaffney said the company didn’t like the idea of being in another long-term lease at Gateway.

Gaffney said Gateway's owners were willing to renegotiate Publix’s lease terms to persuade it to stay. He said Publix’s rent had been held steady at $17,000 per month for more than a decade, at $19,000 after all taxes and fees.

The council member said the “crisis” situation now appears to be moving toward a positive outcome for area residents.

“We may be losing a Publix but it will somebody else’s gain,” Gaffney said. 

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