Mary Watkins and other residents of Historic Kenwood were hoping for a miracle at the Economy Inn Express motel.
The 24-room motel was close to being shut down last week by the city's nuisance abatement board. A scathing January report said the business, at 701 34th St. N, was the site of drug dealing and drug use.
Watkins, a member of her neighborhood watch program, and her neighbors say the property is like a magnet that routinely spreads trouble from the busy 34th Street corridor to Kenwood's quieter, leafy streets.
So they were surprised to hear last Wednesday that the motel's ownership had changed hands. The nuisance abatement board said a new property manager with a reputation for cleaning up troubled motels was also taking over management of the Economy Inn.
"Our hearts are sunk," said Watkins, who had been organizing her neighbors for a strong turnout at a nuisance abatement board meeting. "We're starting to lose faith that anything can be changed. All they do is sell it and change names and the same old goes on."
Trouble for years
The Economy Inn Express has a long history of trouble. In 1997, when it was named the Siesta Motel, the nuisance abatement board also tried to shut it down, saying it was a haven for drugs and prostitution. It is among a long list of motels on 34th Street that residents have picketed and organized against for years.
"You can sit there and it's like watching a crime show," said Christine Patrick, a newer resident who has taken up the fight. "You're like, 'I can't believe this is happening right down the street from our house.' "
Watkins sighed when she learned that the Economy Inn's new property manager, Affordable Realty & Property Management, had also recently taken over the nearby Mosley Motel, at 401 34th St. N. Though the nuisance abatement board is giving the company a chance to clean up the Economy Inn Express, residents say not enough has been done to clean up the Mosley.
According to police, there were 191 calls for service to the Mosley in 2008, and 50 calls so far this year. The calls were for a range of violations that included brawling, sexual battery, aggravated battery and drugs, said George Kajtsa, a police spokesman.
The Economy Inn Express, meanwhile, was visited by police responding to complaints 20 times so far this year, for violations that ranged from assault to narcotics offenses, police said.
Most of the motels on 34th Street N were built during the 1950s, when vacationing families flocked to St. Petersburg. Today, with that market gone, many of the motels have fallen into a cycle of drugs and prostitution, said City Council member Jeff Danner, who represents the area and lived there in the Siesta Motel era. Still, the inexpensive lodging also serves a need for low-income workers, who are often victimized by crime, Danner said.
Some motels are now gone or have been cleaned up. Over the years, neighborhood associations have tried reaching out to the motel owners to curb the cycle, but the problems remain.
After the December report, the nuisance abatement board gave the Economy Inn's recent owner, Maniram Bachu, several months to clean up the motel or face being shut down. Among the ultimatums: Work with police to prevent crime, conduct criminal background checks on employees and photocopy guest identification.
"We will continue to work with the new owner to make sure it gets cleaned up and turned into a respectable hotel," said Lisa Ledbetter, a coordinator for the board, which is under the authority of the Police Department.
The identity of the new owner was unclear last week; a record of the property sale had not been recorded, Ledbetter and court officials said.
But last Wednesday, a day after Ledbetter said the sale went through, Theo Papadogeorgis was at the motel letting one last resident out of a dark, tiny room where a mattress lay on the ground without a bed frame.
Papadogeorgis identified himself as the son of the new property manager, Peter Papadogeorgis.
"We're going to renovate it," he said. "I understand why people would be upset about this place. It's despicable what they've been doing."
Reached by telephone Thursday, Peter Papadogeorgis told a reporter, "We've decided not to speak with you anymore," and hung up.
Bachu, who sold the Economy Inn after four years of ownership, acknowledged that crime was a problem at the motel, but said he was helpless to do anything about it.
"I'm not a cop. I can't do a police job," he said. "I own a business."
Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.