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Despite perception, Ybor City crime rate down 84 percent since 2001

TAMPA — Crime in Ybor City is setting a record, but not in the way some might imagine.

The perception of late: flying bullets. That's after back-to-back shootings this fall at clubs along Seventh Avenue.

The reality: Reported crime in the square mile that includes most of Ybor's bars and clubs has plunged 84 percent since 2001, far outpacing the city's overall decrease during the same period, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis.

Incidents of violent crime, including murders and aggravated assaults, dropped from 368 in 2001 to 74 last year — an 80 percent decrease. And this year's numbers look similar to last year's.

Ybor is safer than it has been in a decade.

"I can't tell," said Cierra Strother, 18, who lives a block from an East Ybor club where five people were wounded this week. "Not in the past week with what's going on in Tampa, I can't tell."

When violent crime happens in one of the city's most celebrated neighborhoods, it attracts scrutiny and conjures new fears about safety.

For business owners, perception becomes far more important than reality.

Now the fight to correct the area's image is back on, and Ybor's business leaders have vowed to close down problem clubs.

"We have gone light years from where we were five or six years ago," said Tom Keating, president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce.

Crime in the entertainment district was dropping even in 2002 and 2005, when high-profile shootings stole headlines and prompted enforcement initiatives and policy changes. Jeff Jordan, bartender at the Reservoir Bar, a smoky pool hall named for the violent film Reservoir Dogs, believes the numbers.

"I've never had a problem," he said. "Never ever had a problem walking down the streets even at 4 o'clock. I'm not saying that's smart. People can't be stupid, but I feel safe."

He has worked in the district for a decade and remembers an Ybor 10 years ago when the streets were full of fights during closing time.

That's when the perception problem began.

With cars jamming the main Seventh Avenue strip on Friday and Saturday nights, then-Mayor Dick Greco closed the street to cars in November 1995, saying it would make the strip safer for pedestrians and provide easier access for emergency vehicles.

But nine years later, police said it had the opposite effect. The street closure turned Ybor into a pedestrian mall where underage youth loitered and got into frequent fights. In 2004, then-Mayor Pam Iorio approved a teen curfew and directed city and state agencies to crack down on fire codes and other ordinances in Ybor bars and clubs. Police stepped up enforcement. Most major crime dropped about 30 percent between 2004 and 2005.

In September 2005, Tampa police reopened Seventh Avenue to cars Friday and Saturday nights to sweep away the street party atmosphere. That helped push major crime down another 20 percent in 2006.

But although crime dropped, violent flare-ups every few years rankled residents and city officials. Their ire often circled back to clubs such as Empire Night Club, which has been the site of three murders, three forcible-sex offenses, 10 robberies, 33 aggravated assaults and 102 drug offenses since 2002.

Still, relative quiet reigned over Ybor during the past two years, when the business and bar district recorded no deaths, according to the Ybor chamber. Tech companies began moving in. Ikea became a nice, new neighbor on the outskirts. Ybor, while retaining its nighttime party reputation, also began attracting young professionals and corporations.

But on Oct. 2, bullets wounded a 19-year-old and struck and killed a 20-year-old in Empire's VIP room — the fourth overall victim linked to the club. A month later, with declining patrons and ramping city pressure, Empire shut down.

Any relief Ybor business leaders felt was short-lived when gunfire in the parking lot of Club Manilla rang out early Tuesday, wounding five people.

Just like 2005, city officials are again considering tightening the reins on Ybor's club scene.

City Council members want reports on the number of citations local clubs have received and whether the city can require clubs to close earlier if they serve alcohol, but also admit people younger than 21.

"It seems to me that a large part of the problem is the intermingling of underage people and people who are consuming alcohol," council member Harry Cohen said. Another council member called for a discussion on how Tampa regulates its bars.

It all adds up to more unwanted attention for Ybor at a time when Republican National Convention officials are touring empty spaces, looking for places to rent.

The scrutiny has clubs such as Club Skye on Eighth Avenue keeping communication lines open with chamber and city officials to make sure their security complies with any coming directives.

"We're just taking our time and making sure we're doing the right thing and being proactive," said Stacy Wolfe, marketing and promotions manager for Club Skye, where bouncers could be seen thoroughly searching bags and vigorously patting down all patrons last week.

Just a half-block away, a Tampa police cruiser was parked within clear view of the club as clubgoers started lining up.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Despite perception, Ybor City crime rate down 84 percent since 2001 11/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 12, 2011 10:13pm]

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