East Gateway| By the numbers

Clearwater pushes makeover for East Gateway area

175 total acreage of the corridor

3,000 total population of the area

49 percent of the corridor's population that is white

38 percent of the corridor's population that is Hispanic

10 percent of the corridor's population that is black

77 percent of the houses that are rentals

CLEARWATER

Robert McGlothin sometimes forgets why he cries.

He just does.

Practically broke, the 54-year-old felon has spent years living in run-down motels, sleeping in parks and eating at various soup kitchens.

His parents died a few years ago and he's spent three stints in prison, the last in the early 1990s for dealing marijuana. But now he's trying to pull himself together, along with his wife of one year, Jody, 50, a stroke victim he constantly frets over because she's confined to a wheelchair.

"I've lost so much," he says, outside the rundown Hillcrest Motel where he stays a mile east of downtown in one of the city's roughest neighborhoods. "We barely have enough to live on."

McGlothin is just another face in the depressing, dilapidated area city leaders call the East Gateway, a 175-acre corridor that's been a blight on Clearwater for more than a decade.

And it's an area city leaders say they want cleaned up before it causes larger problems for other parts of Clearwater.

• • •

After investing more than $10-million in the downtown on infrastructure, landscaping and sidewalks, city leaders say it's time to take care of the gateway, a main downtown traffic artery.

The problem, they say, is the area is filled with drunks, drug dealers, prostitutes, gangs, downtrodden rental homes and outdated, empty strip malls.

The area is bound by Drew Street on the north, Highland Avenue on the east, Missouri Avenue on the west and Court Street on the south.

Just a few blocks from where McGlothin stays, 10 patrons drink Natural Light at the Idle Spur Saloon, a gateway landmark since the 1950s with its shiny bar, creaky wooden floor and sports memorabilia. The clock ticking in the back reads 10 a.m. The bar has been open for two hours.

Bobby Jackovich's shaky fingers are wrapped around a 305's Ultra Light. Perched over the bar, he sips from his second beer. A gateway resident of 33 years, he says "things are out of control."

"There's so much stuff that happens that I hate it and want to move, but I'm too old," says Jackovich, 71. "The street people, they're frustrating, always begging. This area has corroded the whole downtown."

The Chicago transplant once built roofs but now lives on a disability check. He blames illegal immigration and local drunks for the area's problems.

"This area needs a good cleaning out," says Jackovich, adding he was almost mugged recently.

• • •

Gateway development dates more than 80 years, but the area has been dilapidated and run down for about 10.

Four day-labor operations have drawn in a large Hispanic community, and the soup kitchen and homeless shelter have created a nesting place for transients. Additionally, businesses lost customers after the Memorial Causeway Bridge was built because it created another route to the beach.

Still, the gateway does have pockets of stability.

Small-scale professional offices and St. Cecilia's Catholic School sit on its southern edge. A natural foods grocer and eatery is an important anchor on the neighborhood's western boundary.

In addition, a laundromat that was once a destination for drug dealers closed. A Greek restaurant is on its way, and a shop that sells 14 flavors of homemade ice cream — La Feria de La Nieve — opened months ago.

"I like the area and no one has bothered me yet," says Victor Calva, an ambitious 25-year immigrant, who owns the ice cream shop and moved to the area three yeas ago. "I think we'll do well enough here and I'm glad the city is ready to help the area."

• • •

Since fall 2006, the city has engaged residents and businesses, seeking input to find out just what they need to clean the area and make it safer. The city's economic and development department also crafted a rough draft of a five-year plan that details how the city will combat the area's problems, citing five key issues: safety; appearance; business environment; economic growth and housing; and integrating the Hispanic community.

Under the plan, city leaders also hope to build a distinctive gateway at Gulf to Bay Boulevard and Highland Avenue that celebrates the neighborhood's identity and a police substation, create green space and find ways to lessen the impact of the area's homeless.

"My vision has always been for someone to come to Clearwater from Tampa International (Airport) and drive … through the corridor and look at it and say 'Wow, this is a nice place. I wish I lived here,' " Mayor Frank Hibbard says. "We're not there yet."

City leaders in April are expected to discuss the plans and figure out a price tag. The city also wants to create a façade program to help owners dress up their storefronts, and improve the streetscape with landscaping and lighting. Many of the proposals can be paid for with sales tax revenues and federal grants.

In the meantime, city officials are taking inventory of businesses, looking at sites for affordable housing, setting up crime watch programs and identifying "dark areas" to install lighting.

Police and city leaders say lighting and neighborhood participation programs such as regular cleanups will help. Geri Campos-Lopez, director of the city's economic and development department, also says if East Gateway is ignored, then the problems will spill into other areas of the city.

• • •

Some, like 30-year-old Mike Sihwail, who owns the Wanna Save convenience store, applaud the city's efforts. A tough guy who grew up in Harlem, Sihwail says some businesses have taken an "active role in policing."

"I think the police have tried to push out the prostitutes, but the homeless? I don't know," says Sihwail, whose store is on a corner of Cleveland and N Evergreen streets. "Every place has it. We just have to deal with it better."

But there are others, such as Gaelee Hill, a 20-year-old resident with an affinity for sour Skittles, grape soda and menthol cigarettes, who say the city doesn't have a chance to fix the area's image.

"You can put all kinds of new things in here, but it's the people — you can't change them," says Hill, a graduate from River Ridge High School in Pasco County. "You can change the face of a building a million times, but you can't change the people."

She points out the long lines to the soup kitchen, the drunks who stagger across the street — just barely dodging cars — and the homeless who sleep behind bushes, trees and Dumpsters.

She points to a corner, just south, where a man who identifies himself as Jimmy Diamond, 67, a former entertainer, sat in a wheelchair, panhandling to buy pain killers for a rotten tooth. So he says.

And, Hill also points out that the area worsens at night.

• • •

As the sun sets, Evergreen — the main north-south roadway through the heart of the gateway — gets busy. Women begin walking it. Young male adults hang out in groups. All ignore the trash that litters the area. And none of them wants to talk to a reporter.

About a half mile away, two guys knock a third senseless after they tire of listening to him beg for cigarettes. None of them talks, either.

A little ways away, Rory Daigneault, the manager of the Hillcrest Motel, cleans one of the building's seven rooms, sweeping 25 methadone bottles into a dustpan. The former tenant skipped out earlier in the day.

"This place needs something," says Daigneault, 25. "I hate to say it, but it's like the plague here. I go to bed with a gun underneath my pillow. That's no joke."

Revitalization efforts

In 2005, the East Gateway area generated more calls to police than any other part of the city. It's not the city's most troublesome spot anymore, but close to it. Police still routinely investigate burglaries, muggings, rapes and assaults. But the area has pockets of stability. Here's a snapshot:

Police calls: Most occur in the heart of the East Gateway and where much of the activity occurs is near where Gulf to Bay Boulevard and Cleveland Street are split by Evergreen Avenue

Hotels: The area is dotted with rundown motels where visitors mostly pay by the week, some even by the hour.

Businesses: Although the area is distressed, many business here are thriving including an exotic auto dealer, a Mexican restaurant, an ice cream shop, a saloon and organic health store and restaurant.

Clearwater pushes makeover for East Gateway area 03/22/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 24, 2008 1:15pm]

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