City of Clearwater to buy nuisance block in East Gateway

CLEARWATER — City leaders have a plan to clean up a crime-ridden East Gateway block: Buy most of it, with hopes of someday marketing the land to a developer.

For years, the 2.2-acre area near Cleveland Street and Betty Lane has been plagued by blight, drugs and prostitution. And it's worse than other troubled parts of the neighborhood, officials say.

On Monday, the City Council, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, approved a contract to buy the parcels.

The city plans to spend $1.9 million to buy the parcels from MNEK Inc. and demolish the current structures.

"I think this is a strategic coup for the East Gateway," said Mayor Frank Hibbard.

The parcels include the Economy Inn Motel, the old Royal Palm Motel, the Viva Mexico restaurant, two duplexes on Grove Street and a single-family home.

Over the past year, police have responded to more than 420 calls to the Economy Inn alone, said assistant city manager Rod Irwin.

Besides putting a drain on the police department, the motel has also been the subject of at least 24 code cases since 2004, involving issues such as mold, broken windows and inoperable vehicles.

Council member Paul Gibson reluctantly approved the decision, acknowledging the need to clean up the neighborhood.

"I think we all agree this place is a scumbag magnet," Gibson said.

But he was concerned the city would be holding onto the properties for a long time.

That may be the case, Irwin said, but if the city waits, others may buy up the parcels and then Clearwater may lose the opportunity to "eliminate a menace."

"We want to carry it until we get a quality development on it," Irwin said.

The city has been working for years to revitalize East Gateway, which is part of its community redevelopment area, bounded by Drew Street on the north, Highland Avenue on the east, Missouri Avenue on the west and Court Street on the south.

The city will have 60 days to perform inspections and tests on the parcels. To keep funds free for other redevelopment programs, the Community Redevelopment Agency plans to borrow funds from the city's Central Insurance Fund, which has plenty of available reserves, Irwin said.

The parcels are a few doors down from Greektown Grille and just kitty-corner from the shopping center where Nature's Food Patch is located.

Geri Campos Lopez, the city's economic development and housing director, said local merchants and residents brought up concerns about illicit activities at the Economy Inn at a recent East Gateway Business & Neighbors Association meeting.

One or the owners of the Greektown Grille said she's relieved about the city's decision. Elene Karamountzos said her business often deals with riffraff from up the block.

"We have people here outside, constantly begging for change, picking fights in the parking lot, crawling through our Dumpster," Karamountzos said. "I think it's a really good thing that the city is coming through and helping us get rid of the trash."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

City of Clearwater to buy nuisance block in East Gateway 09/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 8:44pm]

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