Keys fishing village says Publix is good neighbor

Based on his small, seaside community’s experience with Publix, which overcame nearly a decade of tiny-but-tenacious opposition to finally open a supermarket in Islamorada last month, the mayor of that Florida Keys fishing village says Orchid-area residents have nothing to worry about.

Publix would be a good neighbor.

“They’ll bend over backwards to accommodate you,” Islamorada Mayor Chris Sante said of Publix officials, who told Orchid earlier this month they will submit a site plan to build a downsized supermarket that would anchor a six-store shopping area on County Road 510 in the southeast corner of the town.

“For us, it was a long, sometimes-torturous process, but through it all, they listened to us, made adjustments and followed through,” Sante continued. “If the planners say a wall needs to be built as a buffer, Publix’s response was, ‘Where do you want it?’ and ‘What do you want it to look like?’

“And the same was true with landscape and trees, complying with our architectural standards, and even the parking-lot lights, which they made dimmer to be less intrusive to the store’s residential neighbors. I’ve been very impressed.

“They went above and beyond.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that the new Publix in Islamorada – the 34,000-square-foot supermarket was built on the bay side of U.S. 1, near mile marker 83 – has enjoyed early success.

Judy Hull, executive director of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce, said there was a “festive feel” at the store’s grand opening on May 24, when a steady stream of shoppers filled the 160-space parking lot and packed the aisles, where many of them took advantage of the free samples Publix offered to celebrate the occasion.

Villagers and visitors were so excited about Publix’s arrival that Nicole Krauss, regional spokesperson for the Lakeland-based company, told the Miami Herald in May: “People started easy-online ordering from the deli last night, before we opened our doors. We’ve never had that happen before.”

Also popular was the company’s decision to open the Islamorada store at 6 a.m. – an hour earlier than most of its locations – to meet the needs of the community’s many fishermen, who stop in to buy breakfast food and deli sandwiches for lunch before heading out on the water.

“Publix is run by some very savvy business people who know what they’re doing,” Hull said. “They came in very much attuned to our needs and interests.”

Of course, the comparison between Islamorada and Orchid only goes so far.

There was a greater need for a Publix in Islamorada than on the northern tier of our barrier island, where Orchid-area residents currently can drive less than three miles to the Publix on U.S. 1 and Barber Street in Sebastian or just over five miles to the store on U.S. 1 and 53rd Street in Vero Beach.

Before the Islamorada store opened its doors, the nearest Publix supermarkets were nearly 20 miles to the north in Key Largo and more than 30 miles to the south in Marathon.

There are smaller markets in the village, but locals say prices in those stores tend to be noticeably higher than in chain supermarkets – because, until last month, shoppers were willing to pay for the convenience of shopping close to home.

The closest chain supermarket was a Winn Dixie in Tavernier, just over a mile south of Islamorada’s village limits.

“There are a lot of people who prefer Publix, and they’d drive the 20 or 30 miles to shop there,” Hull said. “Now, they don’t have to.”

That probably explains why village officials have heard so few complaints since Publix opened.

In fact, Sante said he had received only two complaints – both from women who were opposed to the Publix project from the outset and later joined the lawsuit to stop it.

“I heard from them the first two days the store was open, and I haven’t received one complaint from anyone since,” Sante said. “After everything we went through, the reception Publix has received here has been phenomenal.

“There have been no problems at all.”

Sante said the supermarket, which sits on a 4.6-acre parcel that previously contained an abandoned bowling alley and garage, was built in compliance with Islamorada’s architectural standards and “looks really good.”

He also said there have been “none of the traffic issues” predicted by the group of locals that opposed Publix’s plans and went to court to try to stop them, primarily because the Florida Department of Transportation required the installation of a turning lane at the entrance to the store’s parking lot.

Sante said the group opposed to the Publix project was not large in number, “just a few homeowners with money” that were willing to take the fight to court to prevent a big-box store from coming into a community known for its smaller, locally-owned shops and businesses.

That battle went on for years before a judge ruled in favor of the developer, Equity Development Group, in 2016 – three years after the Village Council had approved the project.

The developer and Publix also endured a 2014 referendum that asked Islamorada voters to approve a law limiting commercial development within the four-island, 18-mile-long village to 10,000 square feet. The proposed ordinance was defeated.

“Once they lost the big-box argument, they went to traffic and noise and lights,” said Sante, who is in his 10th year on the Village Council and fourth as mayor. “But, working with Publix, we addressed those issues and softened the impact of having a big-box-type store in Islamorada.

“You can ask almost anyone who lives here,” he added, “and they’ll tell you they’re glad Publix is here.”

And just so you know: Sante believes people in the Orchid area will say the same, if the town approves Publix’s plans to open a store there.

The Orchid Town Council, though, isn’t expected to take up the matter until the fall.

Town Manager Noah Powers said Friday he had not yet received an application from Publix to develop the seven-acre parcel on the north side of 510, immediately west of Jungle Trail.

Orchid’s Local Planning Agency and Town Council both must approve Publix’s application, which will include a site plan and traffic-impact study, and both are legally required to conduct public hearings before voting on the proposal.

And neither the planning agency nor council meet during the summer months.

“We’re probably looking at November for the LPA and December for the Town Council,” Powers said.

With a standing-room-only crowd attending the April 4 Town Council meeting, Publix representatives outlined their plans to build a 31,000-square-foot supermarket – slightly smaller than the store in Islamorada – that would anchor a shopping area with five other stores.

The design of the building would reflect the British West Indies theme consistent with the Orchid area, and the property would be extensively landscaped to create buffers that would screen the shopping area from adjacent neighborhoods.

The Publix would face north, toward the Orchid Island Golf & Beach Club’s golf course, with the rear of the supermarket backing up to 510 and the parking lot in front.

Powers said he “hasn’t heard anything” from those opposed to the development.

The small shopping center would be built entirely within Orchid’s town limits, which means residents of nearby developments located in unincorporated Indian River County have no voice in the town’s decision.

Many of those residents have expressed concerns about the possible negative impacts of a Publix-anchored strip mall, citing increased traffic on 510, noise emanating from the complex, security issues, stormwater management, aesthetics, and the intrusive aura of parking-lot lighting.

Sante remembered hearing many of those same concerns from those who opposed building a Publix in Islamorada.

“I understand those concerns,” he said, “so let me share this story.”

He then recalled meeting a woman at the grand opening, which he said attracted “every bigwig in town.” The woman lives in a neighborhood adjacent to Publix and, while talking with village and company officials, she raised concerns about the noise created by trucks making deliveries in the wee hours of the morning.

“Publix already had built an 8-foot-high wall and planted some vegetation to create a buffer, and we haven’t had a single complaint,” Sante said. “But they told us if the noise becomes a problem, they would change their delivery times to a little later in the morning.

“That says a lot.”

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