CLEARWATER — In one way, the downward swipe of the backhoe Thursday morning ended an era.
In another, it created a new beginning.
City officials and community activists joined in a collective cheer at exactly 10:18 a.m. when demolition of the notorious Economy Inn and adjacent blighted buildings got under way on Cleveland Street.
"We will knock it down, then we'll build something great," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard.
The city is demolishing the motel, which has long been a thorn in the sides of residents and police. Residents said they are thrilled to see the one-story motel, known as an open-air drug market and a haven for prostitutes and pimps, gone for good.
The Police Department responded to more than 400 calls for service at the Economy Inn last year, according to city officials. The motel, with its peeling roof shingles, also was the subject of at least two dozen city code cases since 2004 over issues such as mold, broken windows and inoperable vehicles.
Maryce Garber, president of the East Gateway Business and Neighbors Association, said she has witnessed the decline of the area east of downtown. Criminal activity and lewdness got so bad, Garber said, that she quit entertaining in her nearby home out of embarrassment about what her guests might see.
Garber said she is looking forward to the rebirth of the East Gateway area, which is bounded by Drew Street to the north, Highland Avenue to the east, Missouri Avenue on the west and Court Street to the south.
Garber said the demolition, which is still in progress, "did my heart good."
She said she would like to see the spot become home to a destination attraction, perhaps a museum, that will draw people into the area and restore it as a gateway to downtown and the beach like it once was.
The city purchased the motel and surrounding buildings — including a Mexican restaurant, the old Royal Palm Motel, a single-family home and two duplexes — in December for about $1.7 million. Altogether, the plots make up a 2.2-acre parcel that city leaders hope to market to a developer.
In March, the city began seeking proposals for a firm to create a "neighborhood vision plan" for the area. That process is scheduled to begin this summer.
Gabrielle Carelli Glatt, daughter of the couple who owned the Royal Palm Motel from 1950 to 1997, said the moment was "bittersweet."
Several people at Thursday's ceremony said the Royal Palm was once an immaculate facility and a vibrant spot. It had a piano bar that drew working professionals and public officials from the downtown courthouse.
Those days may be over, but it's the prospect of what's to come that had Glatt and her family members looking toward the future on Thursday.
"Clearwater really needs it," Glatt said. "For progress, you need to move on."