CLEARWATER — Should last call for alcohol be at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.? That's the question facing Clearwater leaders at a public meeting tonight.
Since 1963, Clearwater's bars have stopped serving alcohol at 2 a.m. That changed in late July when Pinellas County extended bar hours to 3 a.m. countywide.
For nearly a month now, Clearwater bars have been able to serve drinks until 3. But the Clearwater City Council is thinking about passing a city law that will reinstate a 2 a.m. closing time for bars in the city limits.
Council members have mixed feelings about it, but they're leaning toward 2 a.m. instead of 3. They plan to vote on this at their next meeting, which is being held tonight instead of Thursday night as is usually the case.
Some bar owners are planning to lobby for 3 a.m.
"Why put our city at a disadvantage and lose customers and revenues?" said Gerri Shephard, director of operations for Shephard's Beach Resort. She noted that competing bars in St. Petersburg, St. Pete Beach and Tampa can stay open until 3 a.m.
"We're a tourist area with a lot of people coming from out of state and out of the country. They're not used to a 2 o'clock closing," she said. "Why not leave it up to businesses to do what's suited best for their business?"
City Council members believe that a cutoff time of 2 a.m. is just fine. They worry that more drinking will lead to more drunk driving.
"Nothing good happens between 2 and 3 a.m.," Mayor Frank Hibbard said.
However, they also worry that neighboring cities will extend bar hours to 3 a.m., leaving Clearwater as an isolated island of 2 a.m. closing times. They fear that this could lead to drunk driving, too.
"From a safety standpoint, I don't think it's in the best interest of Clearwater to be an island in the middle of the county," said Councilman John Doran.
Elected officials in Largo and Dunedin are dealing with the same question this week. Pinellas cities that want to keep closing time at 2 a.m. must pass local laws limiting bar hours in their own jurisdictions.
Largo officials were expected to vote on the matter Tuesday night and were leaning toward 3 a.m.
Dunedin city commissioners will vote Thursday night. Dunedin leaders said they would strongly consider shifting their support from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. if Clearwater went that way, because they don't want people driving drunk across city limits to get to a bar after closing time.
The Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce isn't taking a position on the issue. The chamber has been polling businesses and has found that bars want a 3 a.m. cutoff time, but restaurants largely don't care because they don't stay open that late anyway.
"Those establishments that rely heavily on the bar trade, they feel they'll be put at a competitive disadvantage if they're not allowed to stay open until 3 o'clock," said chamber president Bob Clifford.
Staff writers Drew Harwell and Dominick Tao contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.