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Where quaint and seedy coexist in Clearwater

Debra Weible keeps an eye out for "for sale" signs in her neighborhood.

If she sees one, she calls friends she knows are searching for new houses. Or she calls neighbors to ask them to call their friends. Anything to get the word out.

Although she sometimes acts like one, Weible is not a real estate agent. But she knows she has to help sell her Old Clearwater Bay neighborhood to home buyers who might never otherwise consider the area.

The neighborhood, one of the oldest in the city, with houses up to a century old, has waterfront mansions and newly renovated bungalows and run-down homes and neglected businesses.

It is home to Elvis Presley's millionaire daughter and to street prostitutes.

"This neighborhood is not for everyone," Weible said. "It does take a certain kind of person to live here. It's not uniform or consistent. In a way, that's the nice thing about it."

Weible, who has lived in the neighborhood with her husband for 14 years, created what has become an active neighborhood association and moved her ophthalmology practice to the heart of the troubles, N Fort Harrison Avenue.

Like her neighbors, Weible sometimes has to explain to people why she lives in Old Clearwater Bay.

"When we moved here, everyone said to me, "You're not moving there, are you?'

" said Beth Goodgame, who moved in two years ago from the posh Harbor Oaks neighborhood. "Slowly, but surely, people came over to visit, and they realized it's okay. We used to say it was the best-kept secret."

In recent years, the neighborhood, which stretches from Drew Street to the mouth of Stevenson Creek between the harbor and N Fort Harrison Avenue, has become known for street drug dealing and prostitution. Police say things became so bad that the neighborhood, particularly along N Fort Harrison Avenue, became the largest gathering spot for prostitutes in Clearwater.

Officers and residents say crime has fallen in recent years because of police sting operations, an active neighborhood watch and the demolition of run-down buildings.

"It's come a long way back up," said Bettie Mease, 73, who grew up in the neighborhood and moved back as an adult. "We still have to keep an eye on things. But we don't let it get us down."

The neighborhood is small, spanning about a dozen or so blocks. About 220 houses, apartments and businesses are considered part of Old Clearwater Bay, the neighborhood association says.

The houses sit high above the water, overlooking Clearwater Harbor.

Residents say they were attracted by the water, the architecture, the age of the houses and the convenience to the beach and downtown. Many say they found the neighborhood by driving along the coast in search of a house near the water.

They like the active neighborhood association, with about 100 paid members, and the feel of an old-time neighborhood, where people wave at each other on the street. Each year, neighbors have a chili cook-off, watch the city's lighted boat parade and compete in a homemade boat race on the Intracoastal Waterway.

"I wouldn't live any place else," Mease said. "It's old. It's got charm. It's my home."

"There's a high demand in that area," said Bob Hebert, a real estate agent with the Bea/Bop Team in Clearwater who sold five houses in the neighborhood last year. "People want to live near the water no matter where it is. There, you're not in a flood zone. You have character and charm and houses that are affordable."

Houses costing hundreds of thousands of dollars are tucked from view on the tiny streets that overlook Clearwater Harbor.

It is common to see Porsches, Jaguars and boats parked outside those houses and signs announcing what company landscaped the yard.

Across the street, houses sell for $60,000 to $100,000. Cramped streets are lined with houses, some sporting new porches or iron fences. They sit side-by-side with neglected houses or apartment buildings, surrounded by overgrown grass and debris. Many of the still-standing houses were built in the 1930s through the '50s.

Residents say Lisa Marie Presley's mansion may be the most expensive. Some homeowners, like Presley, are members of the nearby Church of Scientology, which renovated buildings at both ends of the neighborhood.

The neighborhood has a boat ramp off Seminole Street, the Francis Wilson Playhouse and North Ward Elementary School and reluctantly claims the empty lots along N Fort Harrison Avenue.

Victoria Blake, neighborhood association president, said that when she gives directions to her house she tells people to look for the "seedy" part of N Fort Harrison Avenue and turn toward the water.

"You just have an economically mixed neighborhood," said Blake, who moved in two years ago from Harbor Oaks with her husband and three children. "To me, it's no big deal at all. But people who have grown up in Belleair or other parts of Clearwater, ask me things like, "Are you taking your children trick or treating (in the neighborhood) or do you have to go somewhere else?' There's a lot of mystery to the area."

Established at the turn of the century, it was one of the first residential neighborhoods in Clearwater. Problems began decades later when some of the older houses were in need of repair but were neglected.

These days, things are better but trouble remains, particularly on Marshall and Engman streets.

Clearwater police Sgt. Sandy Thompson and four officers work out of a renovated building on N Fort Harrison Avenue, which they share with the Fire Department.

Thompson said his officers work with the vice unit, and officers pose as drug dealers and prostitutes.

"We used to do it a lot more than now," Thompson said. "We don't have as many problems. They're not around nearly as much."

City Manager Mike Roberto, who has met with the neighborhood association, said his staff is working on a redevelopment plan that includes new signs and landscaping that better define the neighborhood.

Roberto wants to work with property owners to combine small empty lots along N Fort Harrison Avenue so they can be more easily developed.

"It's one of our entrances to the city," Roberto said. "There's a prime opportunity for redevelopment."

The city is considering buying the Atrium Hotel, a dilapidated 70-year-old building residents say attracts transients and prostitutes.

If the city buys the Atrium, it would be torn down to make way for a small park and a new traffic plan that would encourage drivers to use Myrtle Avenue instead of N Fort Harrison Avenue.

Up next:BANKRUPTCIES

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