CLEARWATER — The East Gateway, a main downtown corridor, is a mess.
Virtually no one — residents, businesses, police and city leaders — disputes this.
But just how to clean up 175 acres of dilapidated housing, rundown strip malls and littered yards has challenged them for more than a decade.
Prostitution, illegal immigration, drugs and seedy motels are just a few of the issues. There are also drunks, gangs and residents who are too afraid to complain.
Local leaders are saying enough is enough. The City Council is preparing to implement a five-year revitalization plan. And community leaders are trying energize residents to take part.
But they admit they need to start soon and work fast. Some of the problems are beginning to spill into nearby neighborhoods.
"It's going to be a very difficult process to undertake," said Geri Lopez, the city's economic development director. "There is no quick fix."
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Last week, the council began the slow grind of picking though a five-year plan to re-energize the once-thriving neighborhood.
Council members focused mostly on the plan's first two years, which could cost $1.76-million to carry out. They plan to meet again in May and then hold a community meeting.
The plan cites five key issues: safety, appearance, business environment, economic growth and housing, and integration of the Hispanic community.
Lopez says the city first needs to show progress by placing trash barrels near bus stops and handing out pamphlets asking residents — particularly the strong Hispanic population — for their help. The city also wants to create a facade program for businesses.
Three to five years later, under the plan, leaders want to work with officials at the area's soup kitchen and homeless shelter to move the facilities. The city also wants to install playgrounds.
Officials have already started working with code enforcement officers to notify businesses about violations, ordered street lights, and looked into plans to repair sidewalks and add landscaping.
Most of the funding is to come from grants, Penny for Pinellas sales tax revenue and money raised in the Community Redevelopment Area, which keeps some tax money in the area to improve it.
The Gateway, bound by Drew Street on the north, Highland Avenue on the east, Missouri Avenue on the west and Court Street on the south, is part of the CRA.
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As they began analyzing the plan, city leaders focused on a proposal to build a $1.5-million entrance structure near the Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Cleveland Street split, and whether to use CRA money to add two police officers to the Gateway's four-member bicycle patrol.
City leaders appeared ready to sign off on the extra officers, but were cool to the entrance structure that economic development leaders said would show visitors that progress was being made and encourage them to use the corridor to reach downtown.
"It's a ton of money," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "I look at it and say the most important thing for us to do is create the right environment for people to come to, regardless of what the entry sign looks like. I also wonder what else we could do with that money. It's really a matter of sitting back and prioritizing."
The mayor and police Chief Sid Klein welcomed the proposal to beef up the area's police presence.
Klein said he can't provide the patrols needed in the Gateway with his current staffing. Further, he said, with "increasing demands all over the city," he's taking members off special teams and placing them into regular patrols, with some headed to the city's newly created BeachWalk promenade.
With the two added officers, Klein said, "we could probably make a difference in that area."
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Since fall of 2006, the city has asked residents and businesses just what they need to clean up the area and make it safer.
In addition, Gateway residents and those in bordering neighborhoods formed the East Gateway Coalition, a grass-roots organization that held a number of marches last year, passing out fliers and encouraging residents to start neighborhood watch programs.
Joanna Siskin, a coalition member, said the city shouldn't build the entrance structure and should use that money to buy property, rehabilitate it and sell to new businesses.
"It's time (the city) made a very concentrated effort in there to clean it up," said Siskin, 54. Right now, "I can't imagine anyone wanting to go through such a blighted area to go to the downtown."
Shelley Kuroghlian, 60, also a coalition member, said she supports the additional officers, but thinks the Police Department needs to come up with a new strategy to attack crime.
She said the current plan isn't working and that the police need a greater night presence.
"I'm ecstatic that the city is talking about (the five-year plan) because something needs to happen and they need to move aggressively in that area," said Kuroghlian, who is also president of the Clearwater Neighborhood Association, a group of about 40 neighborhood groups.
"Until the criminal element moves out, no one is going to want to move in."
Chief Klein says the department has restructured schedules and added overtime funding for a park patrol.
The "enforcement strategy has been very aggressive," he said, but "I don't think we'll have enough police officers to totally get that area under control. It has so many dynamics there."
He said police enforcement alone is not the solution, but that the city recreation and economic development departments and residents have to work together for the area to improve.
City leaders say that's what they're aiming for. It's just going to take a while.