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Bill Maxwell

St. Petersburg needs to get serious about its reputation

When many people travel to new destinations, they consult guidebooks and websites for reliable information about personal safety. They want to know about crime and areas, even people, to avoid.

Personal safety is about location.

After the most recent violence near Choice Food Store at 3401 Fifth Ave. S in St. Petersburg, I wondered what Lonely Planet, an internationally respected travel guide, tells tourists about personal safety in the Sunshine City.

Some background on Choice Food, a Citgo gas station and convenience store: Large crowds of black residents, mostly males, on weekend and weeknights around 3 a.m. gather near the store and in nearby parking lots and other open spaces such as abandoned properties.

The rowdies gather after local nightclubs close, and neighbors regularly complain to the police about fights, loud music, trash and public urination. Police have been called at least 150 times during the past 12 months on nuisance-related complaints.

Two weeks ago, a 31-year-old man was shot near the store. A police officer pursued a car that sped away from the scene and shot two men after one allegedly pulled a gun.

Lonely Planet's advice to travelers: "Downtown St. Petersburg … is in the midst of a revival, but the city is still a bit edgy — be careful where you walk, there's no reason to go more than a block or two south of Central Ave. Crime is real here, and you should stay in the touristy areas to avoid problems."

This is a damning but apt description. Politicians, business operators, and tourist and chamber of commerce officials should be worried that a top travel guide has written off a region of the city as a no-man's land.

Some politicians and business operators, however, do not seem to be worried. Take Leo Huss, Choice Food's manager. When the St. Petersburg Times asked him about neighbors' complaints and the recent shooting, he was unfazed, saying the crowds and the mayhem "have never been a problem. If you (run) a business, like me, you would be happy to see that your business is doing well at night."

Even if the store attracts unpredictable crowds, Huss said, it is not responsible for any trouble.

"From what I heard, the shooting happened by the (nearby) pawnshop," he said. "If something happened outside, that's not in our hands. … We've been having this crowd for 10 years. Why is it an issue right now?"

More disturbing than Huss' views, though, is the attitude of Wengay Newton, the St. Petersburg City Council member who represents the neighborhood. He told the Times he has not received any complaints about the crowds. If he has not received any complaints, it is because neighbors probably suspect they would be wasting their time.

"We understand their concerns, but if they (the crowds) ain't breaking the laws, there's not a lot we can do," he said.

As key players in the Choice Food community, Newton and Huss are ill-serving residents. They seem not to know that in addition to being the city's major local north-south artery, 34th Street is, in fact, U.S. 19, the feeder to the Sunshine Skyway and all points south.

Newton and Huss lack a sense of social capital — the community networks, norms and trust that enable and encourage people to assist one another. Research shows that these relationships among individuals, organizations and businesses can lead to a state in which cooperation and the greater good become second nature when problems need to be solved.

Experts argue, furthermore, that social capital contributes to economic growth. The area south of Central Avenue, including the neighborhoods around Choice Food, sorely needs economic growth. The many dilapidated and vacant buildings are eyesores, preventing economic development and giving unwholesome crowds places to congregate and raise hell.

Ironically, one of Newton's political themes is economic development south of Central Avenue. He told the Times that because no laws are being broken around Choice Food, nothing can be done about the rowdiness.

He is wrong.

If nothing else, he can use the bully pulpit of his office to make the case for eliminating the gatherings along this major thoroughfare for the greater good. The gatherings are a public nuisance and a tragedy waiting to happen.

St. Petersburg needs to get serious about its reputation 09/24/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 26, 2011 5:39pm]
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