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Merchants attempt to combat prostitution

Saying police and neighbors offer little help, a Fourth Street business association decides to address the crime.

By ANDREW MEACHAM

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Fourth Street merchants are fed up with prostitutes and other unwanted visitors on or near their properties. A meeting last week of the business association produced an agreement to address prostitution. Now all they need to do is to figure out how.

"It's the same hookers all the time," said restaurateur Peter Veytia, who owns Red Mesa at 4912 Fourth St. N. Veytia said he is frustrated by unresponsive police and a neighboring convenience store that he considers a magnet for undesirables.

J. Patel, who has owned the Landmark Motel for 20 years, said his surveillance cameras have caught people brushing their teeth by his water spigot, swimming in his pool and participating in suspicious late-night transactions.

If he calls the police about prostitutes strolling back and forth on the sidewalk, "They say, "Hey, she's not on your property,' " Patel said. At other times, offenders are gone by the time police arrive.

Grass-roots efforts such as Court Watch claim to have gotten the attention of judges by packing sentencing hearings with disgruntled neighbors, said real estate broker Ginny Lomagno, the association's president.

But sometimes even with Court Watch, "You're not in the loop. You're never sure who's going to be on the docket for prostitution."

Police have made 307 arrests this year for prostitution, compared with 263 at the same point in 1999. That increase is a result of beefed-up sting operations and community policing, said police spokesman Rick Stelljes.

"They even know these girls by name," Stelljes said. "They know where they hang out. A lot of times they know where they live. But you've got to remember that walking down the street is not against the law."

Neither is knocking on someone's door late at night. Patel called police to the Landmark at 1930 Fourth St. N because he was sure that drug sales were taking place. Police told him there was nothing they could do.

Concerns about illegal activity also can pit business against business.

Diners with a window seat at the Red Mesa can look across 49th Avenue N, a thin side street, to the Lucky Step store at 4846 Fourth St. N. That disturbs Red Mesa owner Veytia, who described Lucky Step's Friday and Saturday night foot traffic as "a beehive" of young people looking to buy alcohol or find an adult willing to buy it for them.

"They are notorious," Veytia said of the Lucky Step's owners. "Everyone knows they have no scruples when it comes to doing the right thing. They'll sell anything to anybody."

"That's totally not true," countered Sue Xayasone, 22, a member of the family that owns and manages Lucky Step. "Half the people I card, I send away."

Xayasone acknowledged that underaged youth often try to buy alcohol, but she said her store would have nothing to gain by breaking the law. Wednesday night, the Lucky Step was moderately busy with the clientele Xayasone said make up the bulk of their business, their regulars. "They're hard workers, blue-collar people," she said.

Tensions may continue to rise as businesses push for a cleaner image along Fourth Street.

"We have a vested interest in putting our best foot forward for St. Petersburg because we are a major corridor," said Lomagno. "But we need the support of our judges, our police and our elected officials."

Youths terrorize shopping center, merchants say

Young people are causing a stir at a small shopping center in Shore Acres. Merchants say they skate on top of handrails, write obscenities on the wall and retaliate after hours against any adult who admonishes them by spray painting or spitting on the doors of businesses.

"I'm out there all the time," said Cheryl Thomeczek, 44, whose Artistic Hair Studio on 4526 Chancellor St. NE sits behind a wheelchair ramp favored by skateboarders. "Most of my clients are elderly. What happens if they knock one of our people down?"

Holly's Hobbies Boutique opened two weeks ago. Proprietor Holly Crabtree, 36, put up rows of plastic pennants to announce her clothing store's arrival. Thursday morning she found the pennants torn down, a small garden trampled and a handmade wooden basket smashed, although not beyond repair. Her store at 4510 Chancellor St. NE stands across from a row of businesses and also offers a concrete wheelchair ramp.

"I've had people come in here and say, "I won't come in when they're skateboarding on your sidewalk,' " Crabtree said. Only about half the paint remains on the metal handrails by the walkway. The rest has been taken off by daredevil roller bladers who jump from railings to sidewalk.

Osman Chowdhury, manager of the B&N Market, lamented that a "No bicycling, skating or loitering" sign on the inner archway facing the sidewalk has done little good.

"We're tired of it," said Chowdhury, 40, attributing the troublemakers to "different groups -- 13, 18, 19 (years old)."

Confronting the young people can backfire.

"Parents get upset at you," Chowdhury said. He added that youth have spray painted the front of his store in apparent retaliation.

No young people were visible late afternoon Thursday or that evening after 9 p.m. Their reported gathering place is a small yard at the east end of the B&N, occupied by a bicycle rack and littered with cigarette butts. On the outside wall, someone has drawn a vulgar female figure and written an obscenity in blue marker.

"They're up here on their bicycles at 12 o'clock at night," Thomeczek said. "Where are their parents?"

Police need volunteers to help patrol roads

Police are looking for recruits to join their Volunteer Road Patrol program. Volunteers ride in specially marked vehicles and help manage crime scenes and special events. They might also help direct traffic at accident scenes or handle abandoned vehicles. Applicants must pass a background check and a polygraph test and complete a 40-hour training course. For information on the next volunteer class, call Officer Bob Ortiz at 893-7141.

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