PORT RICHEY — A plan to bring to Port Richey's waterfront a restaurant similar to a bustling island-themed site on the Courtney Campbell Causeway in Tampa has the city's mayor worried that his small community will become Ybor City, the historic area of Tampa known for its robust nightlife.
Plans are afoot to build a Whiskey Joe's restaurant at 7847 Bayview St., joining a casino boat and several other restaurants there. Site plans have not yet been submitted to the city. But the owner, High Tides Marina LLC, has requested several variances from city codes to accommodate more parking.
The company has also asked the city to allow it to construct a 300-square-foot, 20-foot-high outdoor stage for live music, which has become a point of contention. The land sits in an area where an ordinance bans outdoor amplified music. The area, known as the city's Waterfront Overlay District, is a nearly 20-acre swath for which the City Council added restrictions in 2002. It is north of the Pithlachascotee River, west of U.S. 19 and south of Waterfront Park.
During a City Council meeting June 14, Mayor Dale Massad initiated a discussion about the ordinance governing the overlay district, noting the ban on outdoor amplified music has never been enforced. The discussion occurred a week before the variances sought for the Whiskey Joe's site were to be heard by the council's advisory Board of Adjustment.
The mayor called on the council to decide whether enforcement of the ordinance should begin, or if changes should be made. He also touched on his vision of what could happen without an enforcement effort.
"Your life will change if this thing turns into Ybor City," Massad said. "My thought is kill the snake at the head and start enforcing. We're not making new laws. We're enforcing what's on the books."
Massad and the council, which agreed to direct the city staff to begin enforcing the ordinance, did hear a word of caution from interim City Manager Jim Mathieu. Mathieu noted that the Whiskey Joe's project could mean an investment of "substantial amounts of money" in the community, but, because the ordinance has not been enforced, the owners may not know that their idea for a band shell for live music is not allowed.
"They think it's allowed because we allow it now," Mathieu said. "It's a serious issue because they are not going to be happy when they find that out."
A week later, before the Board of Adjustment, Whiskey Joe's attorney Steve Booth addressed the stage variance, saying his client's plan is not to hold live rock concerts, but quieter reggae and "Jimmy Buffet-style" music. Booth said his client also intends to hire an acoustic engineer to help deaden the sound; "no one is suggesting this will be an Ybor City," but rather a "dynamic" restaurant that would help the overlay district flourish.
"We believe it will, in fact, end up being the jewel of the overlay district," Booth said.
While the Board of Adjustment approved recommendation of a variance for off-site parking, the board voted down recommending to the council the stage variance, some citing the desire to see drawings or pictures of what it might look like.
The board did recommend that council members obtain more information about the stage when the matter comes before them in July. Board of Adjustment Chairman Philip Franco also told Booth of the previous discussion led by Massad, who since taking office in October has been complaining about the lack of enforcement in the overlay district.
"We have a whole new administration here," Franco said.