Originally created 05/14/00

Supporters hope to keep store open



From the back of a pickup truck in a Winn-Dixie parking lot, speakers issued calls for everything from verbal and written opposition to boycotts.

Saturday morning's event was a protest against the closing of a favorite area grocery store on Tobacco Road at Peach Orchard Road. But it was also something much more.

Nearby residents, city commissioners and even Augusta Mayor Bob Young said they were standing up for the future of south Augusta.

"This whole development has enhanced this entire area around here," Mr. Young said while standing on the bed of the truck and looking out to a crowd of about 40 to 50 protesters. "It makes no sense to pack up after just a year and walk away.

"You've got to let Winn-Dixie know how you feel. If you want to keep this store, it's going to be an uphill fight."

That fight began just weeks ago when Winn-Dixie officials confirmed that their store on Tobacco Road in south Augusta, which opened in March 1999, would be closed as part of the company's effort to improve its efficiency nationwide. Along with the south Augusta store, 113 others also will be closing across the nation.

To the shoppers of the Tobacco Road Winn-Dixie, the decision came as a final blow in several that have hit the south Augusta area in the past.

"They never asked us what we felt about it," said Tobacco Road resident Delores Dukes, who attended the rally. "That's because they don't care. They still have that stigma of south Augusta from long ago. But those who live here make good money."

Augusta Commissioner Richard Colclough, whose district the store is in, also expressed his feelings.

"We've done a lot of work in south Richmond County to try and fire up the empty storefronts," Mr. Colclough told the crowd. "But we've already got the old Wal-Mart center on Windsor Spring (Road) and the Rose's center there, too. Both of them are dead. So, if Winn-Dixie leaves, we know that the smaller businesspeople around it won't survive."

Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams then offered a way for protesters to show their dissatisfaction.

"We need to let the corporation know," he said. "After we send in our e-mails, we also need to stop shopping at all of the Winn-Dixies around. If they want to play hardball, we can, too."

A woman in the crowd, who asked that her name not be used, opposed the call to boycott, saying it would hurt other people's jobs. But Ms. Dukes and others, such as Valerie Martin, said the idea might be the only thing to work.

"Once I heard they were closing, I already made my decision that I wouldn't be shopping at any Winn-Dixies anymore," Ms. Martin said.

"Boycotting is a message to the company," Ms. Dukes said.

And the message is that south Augusta residents say they're tired of businesses entering their community only to leave a short time later.

"We're trying to do everything we can to attract businesses," said Jimmy Smith, founder of the south Richmond County Pride and Progress Committee. "We don't want to see any more vacant retail out here. Ten or 15 years ago, things started moving west and it left us vacant. And we don't want to see that anymore."

Mr. Smith said south Augusta is one of the fastest-growing areas in Richmond County, adding that the store didn't stay long enough to see profits.

Augusta Commissioner Andy Cheek said the turnout of residents at the rally also proves that the store had its customers.

"For years, we've talked about bringing businesses here," he said. "But we haven't seen any rallies like this. And if you look in the crowd today, you don't see black faces or white faces; you see the face of Augusta and the future."

But reading a letter to the crowd sent to him from a Winn-Dixie official, Augusta's mayor said the future may already be decided. He said the company considers the closing to be in the best interest of Winn-Dixie at large.

"This is a decision we're probably not going to change, but we can tell them we don't appreciate it," Mr. Young said. "And that it's not a way to treat a customer or a community."

A store manager declined to comment on the closing Saturday. But a worker said shelves are no longer being stocked and an official closing will come June 4. All 140 store workers, none of whom attended the rally, have either been offered jobs elsewhere or have been given severance packages.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 868-1222,Ext. 110, or preston.sparks@groupz.net.