CLEARWATER — The owner of a place called the Monkey Bar drove to City Hall to appear before the City Council and state his position. So did the owners of Park Place Billiards, Shephard's Beach Resort and Tommy Duff's Irish Aviation Pub.
Different kinds of bars, but they all wanted the same thing: the right to stay open later.
The bar owners convinced the council Wednesday night to extend bar hours in Clearwater to 3 a.m., even though officials had been leaning toward mandating a 2 a.m. closing time.
Bar owners and bartenders made the case that a 2 a.m. cutoff time would put them at a competitive disadvantage because neighboring cities like Largo are going with 3 a.m., following the late-night example of St. Petersburg and Tampa.
"They can drive down the road 5 or 10 minutes and go to another bar," said Joey Maida, who manages his family's business, Park Place Billiards.
Several bars said they're already struggling to keep their doors open in this economy. And owners of Clearwater Beach locations said tourists — especially Europeans — who vacation at the beach are accustomed to establishments staying open later.
But what really convinced the City Council was the fear that bar patrons would end up driving drunk across city limits to get to another bar after closing time. Or they'd leave Clearwater so they could drink later, then they'd return at the end of the night.
"As I have seen the surrounding cities go with 3 a.m., I am more concerned about people driving out of Clearwater and driving back," said Mayor Frank Hibbard.
"If we're 2 o'clock and everybody else is 3 o'clock, I'm concerned that we're actually worse off," added council member Paul Gibson.
Another factor was that Clearwater Police Chief Tony Holloway had no objections to a 3 a.m. cutoff.
Clearwater has 108 bars, the chief said, and police calls tend to spike around closing time. But a later closing time would just mean that he'd have to adjust some officers' shifts a bit.
City Council members plan to revisit this issue in a year to review whether drunk driving and other alcohol-related incidents have increased due to the change.
This is all happening because in late July, Pinellas County extended bar hours to 3 a.m. countywide. Pinellas cities that want to keep closing time at 2 a.m. must pass local laws limiting bar hours in their jurisdictions.
Tarpon Springs commissioners voted last week for 2 a.m. Largo commissioners voted Tuesday night for 3 a.m. Dunedin commissioners on Thursday voted for 3 a.m. on first reading. A final vote will come next month.
In Clearwater, 16 members of the public spoke at Wednesday night's meeting on behalf of a 3 a.m. closing time. The Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce both argued for it.
No one spoke for 2 a.m.
Reach Mike Brassfield at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.