Editorial: Team effort to eliminate crime magnet yields results
It's not very often that destruction is a cause for celebration. But it was last Wednesday, when officials and residents gathered in a Huntington neighborhood to mark the demolition of a corner convenience store and gasoline station that had long been considered a haven for crime.
Sandra Clements, who represents the City Council district that included the former ALLINONE store at 1954 9th Ave. in the Fairfield community, likened the razing of the structure to a Christmas gift. Perhaps even more telling was her observation that with the store shut down over the last few months, children are no longer afraid to be outside playing nearby.
The store's demise was a long time coming since it first got on police radar several years ago. But it showed how persistent work by police, city officials and federal authorities eventually freed the neighborhood from the store's negative influence.
Troubles at the store date back to at least 2005, when it was then a Sunoco station and was one of a few stores warned by police to stop packaging and selling materials used to make crack cocaine pipes. Complaints regarding public consumption of alcohol, prostitution, drug trafficking and assault brought police to the location hundreds of times a year -- a record that was largely responsible for the City Council's passage in 2009 of an ordinance describing nuisance properties and giving authorities the legal tools to shut them down.
Police continued to keep an eye on the location, investigating suspicions that the store paid drug addicts and dealers to stock the convenience store's shelves with items stolen from other businesses. Investigators then found evidence of food stamp fraud, and federal authorities became involved, too. The resulting investigation and prosecution brought convictions this year of the store owner and two employees. The city went to court to have the place shut down as a public nuisance, and as part of the plea deal with the store owner, the property was turned over to the city of Huntington.
The store is now gone, and residents are glad to be rid of it. That was evident from their reaction on Wednesday. "It didn't serve a purpose in our neighborhood," said Geraldine Jackson, who lives a block away from where the store stood and noted how the closing of the store already had made a difference in the neighborhood. Police frustration -- and relief -- also was on display. A few police officers -- including the food stamp investigation's lead detectives, Capt. Rick Eplin and Lt. John Ellis -- joined in the demolition by throwing rocks at the glass storefront.
The next step is to fill the void on the lot with something that will be a positive for the neighborhood. The plan now is for police, the Fairfield West Improvement Council and Mayor-elect Steve Williams' administration to work with community members to consider alternatives and develop a strategy.
Doing so will be another step forward for the Fairfield community, which already has benefited from other recent initiatives, such as the Weed and Seed program, the demolition of dozens of dilapidated structures, and stepped-up law enforcement and resident activism. The elimination of the ALLINONE store was another welcome step in the evolution of a stronger Huntington neighborhood.