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Largo police targeting prostitution

As redevelopment continues along the Old Towne corridor, the community welcomes everyone _ except for a few.

Crackdowns on prostitution in other cities have produced some unwelcome visitors to an area of the corridor, which stretches along Clearwater-Largo Road from Ponce de Leon to Fourth Avenue NW.

In three separate undercover operations last year, Largo police have arrested 18 men officers say were looking for prostitutes on Clearwater-Largo Road near Ninth and 10th avenues NW. Instead, the men solicited female police officers acting as decoys. On Dec. 10, the most recent operation, police arrested six men, or "johns."

"We could have gotten more, but we do around one arrest an hour because we process them and their car," said Largo police Sgt. Jim Prescious, who patrols the Old Towne sector and participates in the operations. "Usually, we have two or three more (men) circling around, waiting their turn, while we're processing someone. It's kind of surprising the number of johns that have come here during the last year or so."

The men charged with solicitation also had their cars impounded, and they were issued citations for an administrative suspension of their driver's licenses for two years.

The Old Towne neighborhood has not had major solicitation problems, Prescious said, because of the operations. At times, however, women walking along the corridor have been accosted by men looking for prostitutes. At one time, several local women who are drug addicts offered sex in the area, but they have been arrested or left.

"We wanted to hop on this before it gets to be a full-blown problem," he said. "We're doing this by attacking the demand side."

The special enforcement complements efforts by a group of business owners and the city to transform the Clearwater-Largo Road strip into a section of thriving, attractive shops and recreation with a Key West theme by 2001.

The Clearwater-Largo Road Merchants Association, with help from the city, got the Old Towne corridor declared a blighted area. This resulted in a government block grant that gives the group most of its six-year, $1.67-million budget to clean up and renovate the area.

Prostitutes and johns have not produced many complaints, Association president Ron Bortolini said, but he credited the police for working with the community.

"We've got a nice neighborhood now, and they're just making sure it stays that way," said Bortolini, owner of Artisan Painting. "It's an ongoing effort by the police to take care of us."

Most of the men arrested are blue-collar workers. They are from throughout Pinellas County.

"We're going to continue this and maybe even step it up," Prescious said of the special enforcement. "We'll never do away with prostitution, but it can be displaced to somewhere else."