Motel manager Rory Daigneault is only one of the denizens of Clearwater's East Gateway area who spoke in blunt, negative terms about conditions there when interviewed by a St. Petersburg Times reporter. The area is indeed plagued — with prostitution, drug dealing, vandalism, homelessness, panhandling, dilapidated buildings and a high percentage of rental housing.
The city, having gotten a good start on redeveloping Clearwater Beach and the downtown retail district, is now turning its attention to the East Gateway, a 176-acre area bounded by Missouri Avenue, Highland Avenue, Drew Street and Court Street. Its heart is near the intersection of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Cleveland Street.
The city has drafted a five-year program for improving the neighborhood, but given the enormity of the task and the negativity of those who live and work there, it will take more than a plan to accomplish the city's goal of a "vibrant, stable" neighborhood. It will, as the saying goes, take a village — leadership and involvement of people throughout Clearwater's business and residential communities as well as the city government — to reclaim the East Gateway.
If the effort doesn't succeed, the problems of the Gateway will spread. Indeed, they already have, to Crest Lake Park just east of the gateway boundary, along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard's commercial district, and into old neighborhoods north of Cleveland and Drew streets.
The greatest strength of the five-year action program for the Gateway may be that it was not drawn up by a consultant who dropped into Clearwater for a few meetings. It was prepared by a task force of employees from various city government departments, each already involved in some way in the issues confronting the East Gateway. The program's greatest weakness may be its lack of specificity and timetables. It is full of goals, but it is not clear how those goals will be accomplished.
The task force was assembled in 2005, and a consultant was retained to help the task force gather and document input from focus groups and Gateway residents and business owners. It is important that the city do more than gather the public's views and then take over. The Gateway effort must be a partnership between the city government and the public. Perhaps the city should consider broadening the membership of the East Gateway Task Force, or creating a citizens task force to work side by side with the city staff. The action plan also mentions the need for the city to seek "strategic partners" who have the wherewithal to do redevelopment projects in the Gateway area.
The city's program seeks ways to, among other things, increase law enforcement in the area, provide better street lighting, integrate the large and growing Hispanic population into the community, form a business crime watch group or merchants association, create better compliance with city codes, clean up litter, improve landscaping, address vacant buildings, encourage redevelopment of obsolete motels or other businesses, improve storefronts, create more green space, improve the maintenance and use of rental housing, and improve communication with residents who do not speak English. The program also calls for the city to review its goals for the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project and explore other programs to address homelessness in the area.
City Council members will need to be tough enough to take a hard line in the Gateway area on issues like code compliance and law enforcement. This is a neighborhood, and the law-abiding residents there need the same protections and effort from the city that other neighborhoods receive. City Council members also need to ask tough questions of the police and code enforcement officers to learn how conditions in the area reached such a state and why they continue.
Finding funding to do all the city wants to do in the Gateway may be the biggest challenge of all. All the more reason to involve a vast array of individuals and groups in the effort.