Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Public safety

Historic Uptown residents sense crime increase, but police disagree

ST. PETERSBURG — In 2011, Historic Uptown residents were looking forward to the new market and cafe under construction at Fifth Street and Seventh Avenue N, across from Round Lake.

But when the so-called cafe neared completion in the fall, metal bars were put on the windows, and it became clear that it was a convenience store.

"The clientele for the store are pretty much transients buying beer and junk food," said Jonathan Chalker, treasurer of the Historic Uptown Neighborhood Association and director of customer care for HSN. "That's essentially what it was set up for and what you get."

Since it opened, many nearby residents claim the Snack Shack has been the focal point of rising crime in the neighborhood — particularly drug-related activity, as well as burglary, prostitution, public drunkenness and break-ins of vacant houses. But police say crime has not increased around the store, though they have responded to residents' concerns by increasing their presence.

Crime "seems to radiate from there," said Lynn Hurtak, 35, who is a member of the neighborhood association board and a freelance editor.

Shawn Gertsch, senior sales director for IT distributor Securematics, has lived in Historic Uptown — a neighborhood from Fourth to 16th streets and from Fifth Avenue N to Ninth or 12th Avenue N — with his wife and kids for nine years. Gertsch, 45, said the Round Lake area has not been historically devoid of crime, though it was improving. Now, he says, he often sees people moving suspiciously between the store and nearby houses, engaging in what he and other residents believe to be drug activity.

Clerks at the store declined to comment. The owner could not be reached.

Officer Jason Deary, who works closely with the Historic Uptown Neighborhood Association, said it does not appear that crime is up in the neighborhood, and there is "no indication that the Snack Shack is involved in any illegal activity."

The city does not compile crime statistics by neighborhood, but Deary has worked as an officer in District 2 for 10 years and refers to data prepared specifically for neighborhood association meetings.

People typically traveling by foot or bicycle are drawn to convenience stores in any neighborhood because they can get cool drinks on a hot day, Deary said. Historic Uptown residents see a lot of strangers coming through the neighborhood, and that can give an impression of increased criminal activity.

People who are paying close attention to suspicious activity might perceive a single burglary as a trend, he said.

Gertsch was so distraught by what he believed to be an uptick in crime that he took the problem to Mayor Bill Foster, who told Deary to step up police activity in Historic Uptown. Foster also spoke at a June 4 neighborhood association meeting, where he praised residents for working diligently with police to curb crime.

After hearing from Foster, the Police Department increased the number of officers in the area who gave out their cellphone numbers to concerned residents. Additionally, the neighborhood association has organized several crime walks to identify problem locations.

These efforts have yielded positive results, Deary said, and there has been a significant decrease in foot and bicycle traffic from people who do not live in the neighborhood.

But some residents think the only way to get rid of the problem is to also get rid of the Snack Shack.

"We want it gone," Chalker, 43, said. "It doesn't fit with the expectations of the neighborhood."

Lauren Carroll can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenFCarroll.

     
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