ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council blasted the Nuisance Abatement Board on Thursday for letting the former owner of the Economy Inn Express motel off the hook just as he was being taken to task for ignoring complaints for years.
The motel, at 701 34th St. N, quietly changed ownership at the end of March, days before Maniram Bachu was to face the seven-member board. Since 2006, Bachu had ignored the board's orders, after complaints of drug sales and use at the property, to clean up the motel or face being shut down.
Bachu, who operated the motel with his wife, Umawatee Bachu, was able to walk away after he sold his interest in J and J Enterprises to Michael Shimshoni.
"To me, that's a problem. If there's a new owner, make them come down," said City Council member Jeff Danner, who represents the Historic Kenwood neighborhood, where the motel is. "Put them on notice and make them face that there's a problem there."
Lisa Ledbetter, a liaison for the Nuisance Abatement Board, said the panel had the authority to call Bachu in the last week of March but stalled because the Police Department had an active sting operation in the area.
A January report by the board found that the 24-room motel was regularly the site of drug dealing and drug use. But after the sale, there was no recourse but to give Shimshoni the benefit of the doubt, she said.
Several council members rolled their eyes at that. Council member Leslie Curran fumed that she was aware of troubles at the motel when it was the Siesta Motel in 1997. Back then, the board also tried to shut it down.
Shimshoni runs the Mosley Motel at 401 34th St. N, a business that in recent years has also gained the attention of the Nuisance Abatement Board. City officials say Shimshoni, who a decade ago received warning letters from the city about a property at 515 Fifth St. N, has begun to clean up the Mosley and is working to address concerns.
In an interview, Shimshoni said he understands the local frustrations and wants to extend an olive branch.
Shimshoni said the bulk of police calls for service to the Mosley last year (there were 191, from brawling and sexual battery to drugs) were mostly placed by his staff, which works with police. He installed fencing, a new pool and restaurant at the Mosley, and he screens all of his customers, he said.
Shimshoni said he hopes to renovate the Economy Inn Express and reopen in three months as an extended-stay hotel. He said he sees a market for low-income earners who need affordable housing.
While the sale changes ownership, Shimshoni must still comply with the order on the motel, which includes working with police to stop crime there and better screen customers and staffers, Ledbetter said.
Shimshoni's $500,000 purchase of the 24-room motel absorbed fines of about $5,000 imposed by the board.
Of the board's continued oversight of the Economy Inn, Shimshoni said, "It's irrelevant now, because there won't be a problem. We don't need the Nuisance Abatement Board to ask us this kind of stuff. That's not how we do business."
At City Hall, there was talk of all the problem buildings across the city.
"They are deteriorating quality of life, and they just don't care," Danner said.
Ledbetter said 86 percent of those who receive a warning letter from the Nuisance Abatement Board turn their properties around.
Don Gibson, an attorney for the Police Department, said the board treads carefully. It has adhered closely to the nuisance abatement guidelines since a 1999 Florida Supreme Court ruling, when the city was made to pay $61,000 to Joseph Kablinger, whose building was shut down for a year by the board.
Gibson said that back then the board had about nine cases a year. Last year, it had four.
In Kenwood, residents are hoping for the best with the Economy Inn.
"We can hope that he is going to do better," Tim Martin, a board member of the Historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association, said of Shimshoni. "So many people have been frustrated for so long that their patience is pretty low."
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or [email protected]