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Downtown businesses want Williams Park cleaned up

Local businesses say problems with drug dealing and substance abuse at Williams Park are spilling into the surrounding area.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Local businesses say problems with drug dealing and substance abuse at Williams Park are spilling into the surrounding area.

ST. PETERSBURG — For Pastor David Miller, Williams Park presents a conundrum.

Since 2007, he has led First United Methodist Church, just across Second Avenue N. The park has long been a haven for drug dealing and substance abuse that bleeds beyond the borders of those 4.3 acres in the heart of downtown.

The park's daytime residents, drunk or high, often stumble across the street to defecate and urinate on the church's property. Many pass out next to the building. Nearly every day, someone wanders into the parking lot asking for money, food or a place to stay.

It has gotten so bad that First United has hired security to guard its daytime preschool and nighttime and weekend services. The cost exceeds $30,000 a year.

"It's hard because part of our ministry is ministering to people in need," Miller said. "We just have boundaries for those who are disrespectful."

Spillover from the park has become an enduring challenge for many of its neighbors. It has impaired their operations. It has cost them money and time. It has changed the way they deal with and protect their customers, employees and visitors.

Williams Park, they insist, must be fixed.

Earlier this week, City Council members vowed to reclaim the park in response to a Tampa Bay Times story that illustrated how the area has become an oasis of illegal activity.

Their suggestions included a wrought iron fence, more homeless outreach workers, added concession stands and an increased police presence, which has already been instituted.

Those around the park had mixed reactions to those ideas, but almost everyone agreed on one thing — the buses must go. The park is a transit hub for 16 routes. Of those, city officials say, 14 could be shifted to another location.

"You've got to get the crap out and you can't do that without moving the buses," said Rick Neefe, co-owner of Club Lust, just south of the park. "That's the first thing."

People constantly sleep, panhandle or smoke synthetic marijuana in front of his club, Neefe said. When he comes to work in the morning, his stoop regularly smells like a bathroom.

Neefe, who says he has invested more than $200,000 in his business, charges a cover almost solely to prevent the homeless from coming in.

He and other business owners are concerned that even being associated with Williams Park will continue to hurt their bottom lines.

That entire stretch of First Avenue N has been plagued with problems because of it.

On the eastern corner, staff at the Howard M. Acosta law office keep their front doors locked throughout the day.

At the opposite end is a grocery mart where many park residents buy alcohol and, outside, ask passers-by for change.

Between the two, an argument that began in the park led to a shooting last year. Stray bullets shattered front windows at the Williams Park Hotel.

It hurt business, said owner Bruce Gramaila. People often ask about the incident before they make reservations: "Are there still shootings at your hotel?"

Gilbert's Jewelers, owned by 90-year-old Jerome Gilbert, was the most tenured store in the area before it closed a few months ago. The park's growing problems didn't cause the shop to close, but they didn't help.

"It affected the business quite a bit," Gilbert said. "Not much you can do about it."

But a growing number of people are, in fact, determined to do something about it.

Council member Jeff Danner wants to add concession stands and Wi-Fi hot spots to lure students from neighboring St. Petersburg College.

"That could serve as a quasi-courtyard for us," said Kevin Gordon, provost of the downtown and Midtown campuses. Faculty and students plan to discuss ideas with the City Council.

If the park were secured, American Stage could hold outdoor plays on the seldom-used bandstand, said spokesman Roman Black.

The Rev. Stephen Morris, dean at the Cathedral Church of St. Peter, believes the responsibility to change the park does not just lie with the city.

Soon, Morris said, he will begin hosting morning gatherings at which people may pray, read Scripture and take communion in the park.

"It's not intended to go over there and lay claim to it," he said. "It's just to get over there and celebrate and say, 'We're part of this, too.' "

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

Downtown businesses want Williams Park cleaned up 02/22/13 [Last modified: Saturday, February 23, 2013 4:54pm]
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