Tuesday, November 19, 1957. It really wasn’t a simpler time.
The front page of that evening’s Lakeland Ledger could stand in for this morning’s news. There were complaints about presidential policy, news of a train derailment, the FED had offered a lowered discount rate, and the US government was looking into stockpiling weapons. The day’s key story lamented the morning’s poor voter turnout. Lakelanders had stayed home in droves for the November 5th Mayoral election. The run-off was attracting even fewer voters.
It wasn’t all dire news. At the bottom of the page was a small photo of cars crammed nose-to-nose in a packed parking lot. The photo’s cutline heralded the opening of the “city’s biggest shopping center.” The key feature of the new center was a “parabolic arch with flying buttresses.” It had sprung up in just a few months and would soon become one of Lakeland’s most recognizable features. Southgate shopping center had opened to much fanfare.
Lakeland’s future looked bright that rainy November evening in ’57. Though by 1980 some community leaders looked back to Southgate as the first step to the death of downtown: “I don’t mean any disrespect,” said Steve Fulcham, a builder and advocate of downtown preservation, “but the man who made Lakeland was also the man who was killing it.”
That man who set Southgate into motion, Publix head George Jenkins, empathized, “We didn’t realize what was happening at the time. We had to go where the customer wanted us,” Jenkins recalled to the Ledger in 1980.
There is no doubt that Southgate and Jenkin’s property North of the city center, Sears Town, hurried along the “death” of downtown. Jenkins wasn’t being destructive, nor was he against the downtown district. He was a businessman who merely wanted to do the best for his business.
If it had not been Jenkins or Publix or Sears Town or Southgate, it would have been someone else. Over the years various concerns wanted to build shopping centers outside of downtown. One Miami company even announced a huge shopping center on Lake Parker, but couldn’t come to terms on the land. Who doesn’t matter. After World War II families wanted room for new, easily affordable houses. They bought big cars designed to carry plenty – people, packages, and groceries. Jenkins saw what the public wanted and he built it.
The fact is that some neighborhoods will fall to ruin. Some districts are revitalized. Cities are not static. Places ebb and grow. That great idea in 1957, though lamented in 1980, is again a great idea for 2009.
Last year, when Southgate’s neighbors heard rumors the Publix location would close, many feared the worst. The loss of their neighborhood grocery would cause a severe strain on the community. one that grew precisely because the shopping center located there.
Publix officials assured the residents the store would return. This Thursday, the Southgate Publix reopens bigger, brighter, and again a vital daily part of a thriving community. A community that today feels very close to a Downtown reinvigorated from the dark days of the 80s.
Over the next few days, we’re going to publish more about Southgate and the Publix that has always served as its anchor. Today, we’ll look back at the original announcement for the shopping center, and news from the days leading to its grand opening.
On Wednesday we’ll offer a sneak peek into the new store with photos and information about the special inventory and design. (Big hint: picture the Publix Highland City Town Center on Highway 98 S and Clubhouse Road, but you didn’t read that here.)
Thursday is the grand opening. We’ll be there from the moment W.W. Wolfson cuts the ribbon until the first shopper’s bags are carried out by a Publix bagger. Expect more photos, impressions through our Twitter feed, and reports of any special surprises from the Publix staff.
1980 quotes by Fulcham & Jenkins were from the Ledger. 1957 photo by Lakeland Ledger