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Church fights liquor license for theater

WESLEY CHAPEL — A much touted attraction for Cobb Theatres' new $7-million multiplex in Wesley Chapel — in which theatergoers could have alcoholic beverages brought to their seats — is in danger because the cinema is built 173 feet too close to a church.

Cobb calls its concept the "cinebistro loge." A first in Pasco, it would place 350 leatherclad "premium seats" in special sections on the upper auditoriums in six of its 16 theaters.

Patrons ages 21 or older could order alcohol, food and beverages brought to those seats The 3,000-seat multiplex is now under construction as part of the Grove at Wesley Chapel mall.

But a local church, Faith Baptist, sits 827 feet to the west of the cinema. County law says alcohol can't be sold within 1,000 feet of a church or school or public park.

Cobb has asked county commissioners to waive the rule at a hearing on Tuesday. Faith Baptist wants the commission to say no.

"I as well as the congregation at Faith Baptist vehemently oppose the proposed variance to allow alcohol next to our church and school," Scott Naill, Faith Baptist's pastor, wrote to commission chairman Ted Schrader.

Cobb's attorney said the church is well insulated from the cinema.

"There is a large apartment building complex, comprising approximately 300 apartment units within 17 buildings, that acts as a buffer between the theater and the church," said Louis J. Terminello, Cobb's attorney. "The apartments are further surrounded by a chain link fence, and a large parking lot. … There is no direct access to the church property from the theater complex."

Terminello said cinema concierges will ask for legally valid identification to check patrons' ages before letting them into the cinebistro, which is on the building's upper level.

He showed an e-mail from another pastor, Tim Payne of LifePoint Church, who is eager to lease space from the cinema for its growing congregation.

In the e-mail to Cobb officials, Payne wrote, "The Cobb theater would be perfect for us." Payne didn't reply to a call from the Pasco Times Friday.

How did Cobb overlook this planning detail when it drew up its construction plans?

"It's what you learn in the normal course of development," Terminello said. "The sale of alcoholic beverages is not an essential focus of the project. It wasn't taken into account. … You learn things as you go along. This is a theater. The sale of alcoholic beverages is not its principal business."

He said the cinema would still proceed even without alcohol, but "I don't even want to talk about that possibility," he said.

County staff say they have a standing procedure when it comes to such matters:

"It's always been our policy: if there's an objection, we recommend denial (of the waiver) and let the board decide," said Debra Zampetti, Pasco's zoning administrator.

It doesn't make those like James Johnson happy.

Johnson, a 31-year-old Darby resident, isn't a big drinker but he likes having the occasional drink with a movie. He's done that at the Muvico theater in Ybor City, and he was looking forward to trying out the same treat at the Cobb multiplex.

"I was definitely going to go," he said. "You actually pay $4 or $5 more but it's quite nice without the screaming kids or the teenagers causing a ruckus."

Jeremy Welman, chief operating officer of Cobb Theatres, told the Times last week he hopes to open the cinema in June.

If commissioners kill the alcohol feature, Cobb's key marketing tactic, the theater — and its eager patrons — may be left high and dry.

"I think it's ridiculous," Johnson said. "This isn't even Ybor. It's not like it's going to be a party atmosphere or anything. You're just having a drink."

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at cyap@sptimes.com or (813)909-4613.

Church fights liquor license for theater 04/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 1:20pm]
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