Longtime residents of downtown Tampa say they’ve been waiting for a supermarket for at least 15 years.

They will have to wait a little while longer -- about 620 days -- but a Publix supermarket is definitely in the works as part of The Channel Club mixed-use development project in the Channel District.

Downtown residents, politicians and business people who attended a Friday groundbreaking for the project, hailed the announcement as a turning point in Tampa’s quest to become a city where people want to live, not just work.

“You need a complete community. You need a place to live, to work and to go to the grocery store,” says Linda Saul-Sena, a former Tampa City Council member and an urban planner.

“It’s like cooking without salt,” she says. “Now the neighborhood has all the ingredients.”

The 40,000-square-foot grocery will be built adjacent to The Channel Club, a 323-unit complex in a 21-story building near the corner of East Twiggs Street and Meridian Avenue. The city plans to spend $1.5 million on a public park next to the grocery, further enhancing the area’s attractiveness to current and new residents.

“It’s the ultimate amenity,” Tampa lawyer Ron Weaver says of the park-grocery nexus. “It’s hard to compete with this. You’re two or three minutes from the concerts and the museums.”

The Channel Club is being developed by Mercury Advisors, which built the nearby Grand Central at Kennedy, an upscale mixed-use complex with 392 residential condominiums and office and retail space on the lower floors.

Ken Stoltenberg, a director at Mercury, says he tried for nine years to get Publix to build a store in the shadow of the 12- and 14-story buildings at Grand Central at Kennedy. The company turned him down five times, he says.

“They wanted a prominent, drive-by location, and our spot at Grand Central didn’t give them that unfortunately,” Stoltenberg tells 83 Degrees.

But it only took one phone call to the Lakeland-based grocery chain to get a positive reply after they saw the plans for The Channel Club. The big difference? The proposed complex is near an on-ramp for the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.

“It was the traffic pattern,” Stoltenberg says. “Everyone leaving downtown this way, either taking the Crosstown or going on (Highway) 60, goes right by it.”

Demand drives decision

Publix spokesman Brian West says population in the Channel District -- both present and projected -- guarantees the customer base necessary for a new grocery store.

“Look all around you; there are a lot of people in this area,” West says. “When you have a grocery store, you have to have that customer base, and it definitely exists in the Channel District. There’s loads of potential growth.”

Canyon Partners provided financing for Grand Central at Kennedy and will do the same for The Channel Club. Ron Muzii, a senior director with Canyon, says the addition of Publix was “an important component” in deciding to support the latest project.

“This area is in desperate need of a grocery store, and Publix is a good one,” Muzii says.

About 3,300 people now live in the Channel District, and that number is expected to grow to at least 5,000 with future projects.

Driving that expected influx is the growing popularity of urban living, a long-established lifestyle in densely packed Northeastern and Midwestern cities, and now blossoming in the Sunbelt. A key component of that popularity is the “walkable” neighborhood. Residents want to be able to walk to restaurants, entertainment venues and shopping.

The main demographics drawn to walkable neighborhoods are millennials, the mostly unmarried 18-34 age group that has less of an affinity for cars and more of an affinity toward healthy lifestyle choices than previous generations. Millennials are also known for using mass transit and riding bicycles for distances too far to walk.

Also drawn to the urban lifestyle are Baby Boomers, who want easy access to the arts, dining out and healthcare without being dependent on their automobiles and while shedding the responsibilities surrounding upkeep on a freestanding home and yard.

Vance Arnett and his wife Jane are examples of the latter group. Arnett is on his second career as an executive and career coach after working 35 years in Florida state government. The couple moved into the Channel District in 2012 and he now serves as president of the Channel District Community Alliance.

“There are a lot of folks filling some of the new technical jobs (in Tampa) and a lot of folks like me that have finished their first career and prefer that lifestyle rather than being car-bound,” Arnett says. “You’ve heard it for five years now: Millennials don’t want to be bound to a car. I’ve been in a two-car family for 25 years and we’re trying desperately to get down to one.”

One more jewel in Tampa's crown

Supermarkets like Publix are typically seen in suburban settings where soccer moms can be seen piling 10 or more bags of groceries into one of dozens of minivans or SUVs crowding an acre-size parking lot.

But Arnett says a Publix will still be popular with Channel District residents because they shop differently.

“We shop every three to four days and I bring home two bags of groceries,” he says.

So is the addition of Publix to the downtown core really such a big deal?

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, no stranger to hyperbole, called the coming of the grocery store a “signature project that has told the world that we’ve arrived.”

He compared the Publix to other recent blockbuster events such as the University of South Florida medical school moving to the 40 waterfront acres being redeveloped by Strategic Property Partners and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, and completion of the city’s Riverwalk.

“But I’m here to tell you, in terms of rounding out that mosaic and making this a true live, work and play environment, a grocery store is absolutely critical to that equation,” the mayor says.