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34th Street businessmen go all out to regain respect

"34th Street will be a respected street again," said Peter Sharp, leader of the 34th Street Business Group and Hotel/Motel owners. He says he is already seeing improvements.

"We do see less drug sales," he said. "And new hotels are coming."

The group has been meeting monthly for about eight months and works closely with community police officers, AmeriCorps Pinellas volunteers and a neighborhood Crime Watch group.

The new hotel Sharp referred to is the Hampton Inn which is in the process of purchasing the Lamp Post hotel. When the new inn was struggling to get through the city's permitting process, "We went as a group and supported the Hampton Inn," he said.

He says he learned at a recent city meeting that "two other major hotel chains are looking at 34th Street near Tropicana Field."

Barbara Kieta, AmeriCorps Pinellas project activities specialist, helped initiate the clean-up effort of the 34th Street corridor. "It's our job to get everyone on target, then pull back and let them take over," she said. Her group recently expanded its 34th Street efforts beyond the city limits into the county.

Assisting Kieta are AmeriCorps members, most of whom are students in the St. Petersburg criminal justice program. To fulfill grant requirements, members must perform 1,700 hours of community service from January to December. Work can be with police departments in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Largo or with the Sheriff's Office.

Members Emily Sandlin and Terry Fields are assigned to the 34th Street area and work prostitute stings, distribute fliers and talk to business owners about uniting. Kieta reports results and discusses concerns with the city team led by Susan Ajoc, Neighborhood Partnership director.

In a recent session, owners identified low rates at motels as a potential cause of attracting prostitutes and other problems. Although there was some agreement that a $27 minimum rate would help, that has not happened yet.

"We're not going to get frustrated," Sharp said. "It only takes one real success to turn things around."

He is excited about 34th Street's future, and the group is moving toward more formal organization.

"We're real serious about what we're doing," he added. Elections of officers will be held soon.

On May 13 at 6 p.m. police Chief Goliath Davis will be speaker at the group's monthly gathering at Comfort Inn, 1400 34th St. N. Business owners and residents along the 34th Street corridor are urged to attend. Mark your calendar and arrive early, though. Sharp says this group is on the way up and predicts standing-room only.