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Businesses near Tampa Bay Times Forum hit hard by hockey lockout

Larry McKinney of USA Fence removes fence posts from barricades put up for the RNC along Caesar Street near the Times Forum on Aug. 31 while Dave Holder, left, gets ready to role up fencing.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Larry McKinney of USA Fence removes fence posts from barricades put up for the RNC along Caesar Street near the Times Forum on Aug. 31 while Dave Holder, left, gets ready to role up fencing.

TAMPA — Call it a double whammy.

Last month, many downtown businesses hungered for customers before and during the Republican National Convention.

Then last week, the National Hockey League canceled all its preseason games because of a dispute between owners and players.

The unfortunate combination has business owners near the Tampa Bay Lightning's home begging for mercy.

For Stephen Davis, it proved fatal. The owner of the Luxury Box sports bar across from the Tampa Bay Times Forum closed Sept. 10.

"You can't survive down there without hockey," said Davis, who opened the business in 2010. "If we had had a decent RNC and the hockey season would not have been suspended, we would still be open."

Davis expected some walk-in business during the convention but lost hope when security fences went up, blocking customers' access. Aside from a few security workers, his place was dead.

Even if the Luxury Box had done well during the RNC, Davis said his days were numbered. Fears of a lockout have loomed for months. He feared a repeat of 2004, when the entire season was lost.

"I was watching the whole thing and preparing," he said. "I knew it didn't look good."

Davis shut the doors permanently and is considering legal action against the city for the losses he incurred during the convention. Davis is also CEO of Tampa Bay Rain, a new franchise of the American Basketball Association.

His situation, while dire compared to most others, reflects the sentiments of many bar and restaurant owners reeling from a slow summer who now must face the possibility of losing business generated by hockey games.

"It's going to be touch and go for us. We're on the cusp," said Kenny Quillen, co-owner of Kenny's bar on Morgan Street, a few blocks from the Times Forum. "It's not worth going into the negative to stay open."

The 21/2-year-old bar relies on hockey fans and Times Forum employees stopping in for a drink before and after the games. He didn't expect big crowds during the convention but also didn't expect such a slowdown in the weeks leading up to the event. If the hockey lockout drags on for months, Quillen fears he'll have to close.

Hockey season pays for his entire year.

The Times Forum closed for six weeks in preparation for the Aug. 27-30 convention. The venue held three big concerts in June — Neil Diamond, Coldplay and Def Leppard with Poison — and a Tampa Bay Storm game on July 14, but nothing major since then. Two preseason hockey games at the Times Forum have already been canceled, and the Oct. 11 start of the regular season appears in doubt.

Rick Drury, owner of Precinct Pizza at Channelside Bay Plaza next door to the Times Forum, said the hockey games bring in customers all day long, from the workers at the facility to the police directing traffic to the fans. He hired extra people to work during the convention and hockey games but just laid off three people because of poor sales.

"Only the summer of 2010 during the BP oil spill was worse," he said of his 6-year-old business. "Usually, our sales are very strong, but we are currently at about 50 percent of our normal sales. I'm not sure if the NHL lockout is all to blame, but it is really bad right now."

Drury expects to lose the entire season and is planning accordingly to survive with less. He isn't panicking because he knows he isn't the only business enduring tough times. He also recognizes that not every pizza shop has his luxury of being so close to a sports arena.

The general manager of Hattricks is less concerned. The bar was rented out the week of the convention and enjoyed a huge bump in sales, said David Mangione, who is also a partner in the business. A lack of events at the Times Forum forced the staff to focus on its regular customers by providing good, consistent food and service, and promoting the bar through social media.

"It would be foolish for us to say we wouldn't miss hockey, but I don't know if the full impact will be felt until the football season is over," Mangione said. "And I say that a little guarded."

Over the past 16 years, the bar on Franklin Street has worked hard to attract hockey fans as well as downtown workers and visitors.

Mangione cited this weekend's boat show and other events at the Tampa Convention Center as opportunities to reach out to new customers.

The bar also has learned to adapt, he said. Hattricks survived the 2004 lockout and will do whatever it takes to keep moving forward.

Times staff writer Laura Reiley contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

Businesses near Tampa Bay Times Forum hit hard by hockey lockout 09/28/12 [Last modified: Friday, September 28, 2012 9:15pm]
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