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Bar prevails in battle with University of Tampa over right to serve liquor

TAMPA — The liquor will continue to flow at a bar near the University of Tampa despite an effort by school officials to stop the cocktails.

A 6-0 vote Thursday by the Tampa City Council upheld a city board's decision to allow the Retreat to keep dispensing hard liquor. At issue was whether the South Hyde Park Avenue establishment was covered by an obscure 1945 city ordinance. That rule allows continuously operating businesses that had a state liquor license in June 1945 to sell hard alcohol even 64 years later.

The original license no longer exists because the state has purged its records.

But Mark Bentley, an attorney for the Retreat's owner, said a January 1946 photo showing bottles behind a bar proves the location sold liquor in 1945. He also made his case using testimony from people now in their 80s who said they drank there.

An attorney for the University of Tampa, which has been fighting the liquor sales amid concerns they make student drinking problems worse, said a photograph taken in 1946 doesn't mean the location had a liquor license in June 1945. And even if the original bar did serve liquor there, it doesn't mean its owners had a license to do it.

"They are drawing inference upon inference from a photograph that simply shows liquor bottles sitting behind a bar," said the university's attorney, David Mechanik.

He also discounted such evidence as decades-old rent rolls, newspaper advertisements and phone book listings.

"These are all interesting historic artifacts, but they don't show any evidence of a liquor license," Mechanik said.

Council members, though, sided with the bar's owner, Rick Calderoni, who also owns the Green Iguana restaurants.

"Can we say absolutely 100 percent sure what was going on in June 1945? No," said council member John Dingfelder. "But that's not the standard."

Unlike a formal court proceeding, the council can rule on circumstantial evidence.

As the three-hour debate began, council member Charlie Miranda predicted the battle would continue long after the council made a decision.

"There's enough resources on both sides that this is going to end up in court," he said.

Bob Ruday, UT's dean of students, said after the vote he would consult with the university's president about taking the matter to a judge.

Bentley's evidence was enough for a city zoning administrator to give Calderoni permission to add hard liquor to the Retreat's beer-and-wine menu in March 2008.

UT appealed the decision to the city's Variance Review Board, which in December upheld the administrator's decision.

The university then appealed to the council. Before the council's hearing, attorneys for the school discovered new evidence that called into question the authenticity of the photograph, archived at the Hillsborough County Public Library. Although library records labeled the photograph as one of the Retreat, a ledger belonging to the photographers, also held at the library, documents it as a photo of a different bar — the Paddock.

That information was not presented to the council on Thursday because appeal hearings can only include information introduced during the original proceedings.

After the vote, Calderoni said the bar doesn't cause problems for UT students.

"We're not a nuisance. We have no citations. We have no problems with law enforcement," he said. "And most of the student population is under 21. They're not part of our target market."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Bar prevails in battle with University of Tampa over right to serve liquor 06/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 4, 2009 11:24pm]
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