CLEARWATER — Mayor George Cretekos lashed out at some Clearwater Beach developers Wednesday night, exposing city tensions in fighting to keep some of the beach's most prominent businesses in line.
The City Council voted to change codes that banned alcohol outside Britt's Island Grill. It was a response to the beach restaurant's "Free the Patio" campaign, which said the ban had hurt their business.
But council members balked when the restaurant building's owners, Surf Style Retail Management, pushed for even more city concessions, including serving alcohol on the sandy side of the city's $20 million BeachWalk promenade.
"It wasn't three minutes into your discussions with us that you were already saying, 'Give me more,' " Cretekos said. "We have our rules that apply to everybody in the city. And nobody comes back to us saying, 'Give me more,' as much as you have. Nobody flaunts the rules in our face."
City officials and the Surf Style chain, which owns the towering parking garage where Britt's is located, have butted heads for months. Since the $11 million Surf Style megastore opened last summer, code enforcement officers have told the business repeatedly to bring inside unauthorized merchandise bins and sandwich board signs that officials say block the public sidewalk.
The city and Britt's reached a begrudging accord earlier this year when council members voiced support for changing zoning rules to allow alcohol alongside parts of BeachWalk, including the Britt's patio. But city leaders said Surf Style had continued to push its luck, with Cretekos calling Britt's outspoken "Free the Patio" campaign a step too far.
"In my heart, I know that they know that what they're doing is not right," Cretekos said Thursday. "We've told them, 'Don't keep pushing, because at some point you're going to get an answer you're not going to like.' "
Gilad Ovaknin, a Surf Style executive, told the council Wednesday that the city's rules pent up the restaurant's outdoor seating. He asked to expand dining and drinking north and west toward the beach. He said that before the 20-year-old restaurant reopened in March on the Surf Style garage's ground floor, its lucrative outdoor space had been twice as large.
Council members responded that they would wait for the current changes to take effect before passing anything else. If restaurant leaders wanted more seating, Cretekos added Thursday, they should have considered that during rebuilding.
"I don't know how to put it any other way," Cretekos told Ovaknin on Wednesday. "This member of the Clearwater City Council is tired of it. And I want you to hear it from my lips."
Ovaknin told the Times on Thursday he had no further comment, saying he wanted to "continue to strive to keep a good relationship with the city."
Though not as vocal, council members agreed with Cretekos that the developers needed to better follow the rules.
"It certainly makes it difficult when they pick and choose the ordinances they like," Vice Mayor Paul Gibson said at the meeting. "You were very clear, mayor. I picked up on what you were saying. And I bet they did, too."
But it's not clear whether the message was received. The zoning changes need a final council vote, scheduled for late next month, before alcohol can legally be served on the Britt's patio. But on Thursday, the restaurant's Facebook and Twitter accounts broadcast that their patio had "FINALLY been FREED!!!!"
"We can now serve you an ICE COLD BEER or any alcoholic beverage for that matter on our BEAUTIFUL PATIO," a Facebook post stated. "Hurry down and be of the first to celebrate with us!"
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.