Roy Exum: Has Publix Dried Up?

Thursday, January 24, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum
The legendary Baron of Baseball in Chattanooga was Joe Engel. He was a promoter of such renown his portrait was painted on the toilet in the ball park’s press box “in honor of my friends in the press.” I remember, quite vividly, when Mr. Engel traded a left-handed pitcher for a live turkey. Yes, a real bird in a crate!  The best promoter in the majors was Bill Veeck who, quite famously, sent Eddie Gaedel to the plate as a pinch-hitter when Veeck owned the St. Louis Browns.
The hitch was Gaedel stood 3-feet-7 in his socks. The number on his jersey was “1/8” and, of course, he walked on the first four pitches before Veeck, to the delight of the crowd, inserted a pinch runner.
Veeck was also the first American League owner to sign a black player – Larry Doby – and when Lou Boudreau introduced Doby to his teammates, three Indians players refused to shake Doby’s hand. All three were traded within a week and Cleveland won the World Series the next year.
The moral of this story is what Engel and Veeck realized early on -- you must promote to keep the public’s interest. Look around; the clever advertisers are always first in line at the deposit window. What bothers me greatly, as we enter this last week in January, is that hope a new Publix grocery store will be built on South Broad Street has all but dried up.
We know 11 different site plans have been rebuffed by the “urbanists” who, most unfortunately, have a cadre of what is better described as “nonrealists” on our Regional Planning Commission. What’s worse is that the city’s variance board appears to be totally ignorant of what a variance is. It means to make an exception – in this instance to honor the owner's request to allow front-of-store parking instead of the ludicrous idea customers must park in back of the store. (Quickly, in all your travels over “the lower 48,” how many grocery stores can you remember where the cars parked behind the store?)
Last week Food City opened a second location in Dalton and I’ll guarantee you the only remarks from the Whitfield County officials were made in deepest gratitude. Publix just opened a new store in Fort Oglethorpe. I’m begging you, go look at either and you’ll see everybody – be it the owner or the consumer – is a winner.
Now drive down Brainerd Road and you’ll see where a Food Lion, unable to renew a lease, is closed. Who are the losers? We are. I can take you from neighborhood to neighborhood thereabouts where the elderly and infirm are seriously challenged when it comes to going to the grocery store. That’s horrible.
Now let’s go down South Broad, from the I-24 exit. There’s a new car wash but it opened about the time the whiskey store closed. The Long John Silver’s is closed. The Pizza Hut closed. The Mount Vernon Restaurant, long a Chattanooga landmark, is closed. The rent-a-night hotel is tottering, according to talk on the street, and two of Chattanooga’s most precious gems, Chattanooga Christian and Calvary Chapel church, both mourn the direction that South Chattanooga is headed.
The Publix store, because it is sure to be a catalyst for a desperate 10 miles in any direction, needs to once again become a priority. Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke must combine forces with County Mayor Jim Coppinger, and two or three of those eager to see our community thrive, and arrange a plea session with Publix. I’m talking about going to the Lakeland, Florida headquarters and begging our way in.
In early November Publix was one shy of having 1,200 locations across the South. As of today there are 1,219 and, to be candidly honest, Publix can build anywhere it wants without the hassle, the embarrassment, the rejection, and the totally-unnecessary “bull baiting” by people who can’t see the forest for the trees.
Knowing that Publix has been affronted by the Regional Planning Agency and its Variance Board, I know we have to sell the grocery giant in order to get far more than a grocery store. In 2017 Publix had $34.6 billion (with a ‘b’) in retail sales. At the same time they employed over 190,000 people with wages ranking from $18-to-$37 per hour. (How many of our Chattanooga neighbors in Alton Park tacked down $18-$36?)
I know Publix is not currently returning calls to the area code 423. I also know that until we sell ourselves to them many, many people will be hurt and when one weighs the advantages of a South Broad Street store against the disadvantages, you’re going to need bigger scales than Wingfield Scales can possibly provide.
Alright, we know what has happened in a comedy or errors so I’m all for Mayor Berke to bury yesterday’s miscues for the cloak of a hero. I’m all for transportation guru Blythe Bailey to show us how this could work rather than fail.
But, lordy, let’s not let mistakes bequeath mistakes. South Chattanooga needs these jobs, it needs fresh air, it needs fresh life. Publix brings a civil-minded goodness and a proven dedication to make our lives better. This will be a step towards better things, better times, and an unmistakable catalyst for far better things to come.
As it now stands, Publix has agreed to make a final appeal to the Variance board in April. I am told a request to appear must be made a month before hand so why don’t we beg all parties not to waste another senseless month and move the request up to its March meeting? We can ill-afford to let something this promising and this spectacular die on the vine.
The shorter time spent on life support the greater the chance of survival. This effort must succeed.

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