Women in bikinis and men in swim trunks blanket the perimeter of the pool behind the College Court Apartments. Some hold pitchers of beer; others, red plastic cups.
They toss ice cubes down a guy's crotch. The DJ spins pop and rap hits. The first of four kegs emerges.
If not for who was hosting this May 30 bash, billed on Facebook as "the biggest pool party of the summer," it might have passed as just another raucous college affair. But for years, College Court and other apartments near the University of South Florida have thrown these shindigs to thank renters and to lure new ones. They don't supply the alcohol; the students do, the apartments say. But they know it's there and do nothing to keep it out of the hands of underage partygoers.
"It's a problem that pretty much goes unreported," said Kevin Banks, USF's assistant vice president and dean of students. "Off-campus complexes have presented a challenge for us."
• • •
Go to any apartment in north and northeast Hillsborough and you're likely to see billboard-sized banners touting: Student living you've never experienced.
Competition for students from the state's third-largest public university is fierce. No one knows how much money they pump into apartments, but demand for "resimuters" — the term USF officials use to describe students who live within 10 to 15 miles of campus — is high.
"We estimate that 10,000 to 15,000 students live in these designated zones," Banks said.
Pool parties are inexpensive marketing tools that pull in lots of people. Advertising costs nothing, thanks in large part to popular social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.
Just for showing up, move-in fees are waived. For rental discounts, students compete in booty shake, belly flop, hula hoop and tube racing contests.
Students arrive by the hundreds, making it difficult for staff to monitor underage drinkers.
"We used to find that 400 people would come," said Cathy Bryan, the property manager at Avalon Heights on Fletcher Avenue. "You can't possibly see everything that's going on and control every situation."
The parties are most popular at the beginning and end of the school year, said Hillsborough County sheriff's Maj. Louis Hollinshead, who oversees the district covering USF. Undercover deputies "go out on a routine basis to investigate whether or not there are any open house parties," he said.
Just last week, Temple Terrace police broke up one at the Boardwalk at Morris Bridge, about three minutes from USF, spokesman Michael Dunn said. Two people were arrested, including an 18-year-old, for underage drinking.
Bryan and other property managers said they don't provide the alcohol, just the venue, food, soft drinks, bottled water, entertainment, games and prizes.
"I can't believe anyone sets out and says, 'Let's get beer and everyone here,' " she said. "We want to provide residents with fun things to do with one another."
• • •
A quarter to four, and the belly flop contest was in full swing at College Court. USF senior Carlos Solis, 22, walked around the pool with a nearly empty beer pitcher.
"Pretty much 50 percent of them that graduated high school like two days ago are here," he said. "I know it's against the law. But they know what's right from wrong. Come on, now. You're an adult."
His 20-year-old roommate was among the underage partiers.
Matt Murphy said he thinks Florida should lower the legal drinking age from 21 to 18.
"The state says they're smart enough to graduate high school," he said. "They must be smart enough to make decisions."
As Murphy talked, two guys made an announcement:
"Excuse me. Excuse me."
The crowd parted to make room for them. They carried another keg.
• • •
That is why advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Tampa Alcohol Coalition support "keg tagging."
"Whoever purchased those kegs would have to leave their information: their name, their contact information," said Karen Hernandez, MADD's state chair for underage drinking prevention and youth services. If police found underage drinking, they could track the suppliers.
"They're responsible to either check IDs or in someway ensure that underage are not getting access to alcohol," said Ellen Snelling, co-chairwoman of the 100-member Alcohol Coalition.
Until that happens, Banks said, USF is discussing ways it can partner with apartments and offer programming that's conducive to students, not harmful. The USF police department also plans to ramp up off campus patrols thanks to a $318,000 grant it recently received, Lt. Meg Ross said. Soon, officers will cruise north of Fletcher Avenue to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard as part of a campuswide effort to better serve the resimuters.
• • •
David Harwood, the property manager of College Court, said he's never seen crowds as large as the one at last month's party, which drew 200 to 300 people. The apartment has hosted it for two years. In 2006, Pepin Distributing Co., which distributes Anheuser-Busch products in Hillsborough and much of Pasco County, sponsored it, Harwood said. Pepin is a member of the Alcohol Coalition.
It sent two Bud girls, but no liquor, marketing director Bill Gieseking said.
"They gave away promotional items like cool cans, can wrappers that you put around your beer can or soda can," he said. Afterward, the company discontinued similar sponsorships.
"I can't be involved with anything that may be 21 and under," Gieseking said. "It just wasn't the right promotional vehicle."
About half of College Court's 356 tenants are under 21, but Harwood said he didn't know some of them were drinking at the May 30 party.
"We're aware that residents that are of age are permitted to have alcoholic beverages at the pool," he said. "If I knew somebody wasn't 21, I would not only tell them to pour it out, I would throw them out of the pool."
In a June 6 interview, Harwood said he ordered the kegs removed after escorting a Times reporter out of the party.
There will be more pool parties, though Harwood said he has no sure-fire plan to keep booze away from underage visitors. "I can tell you it's going to be addressed," he said.
Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5303.