DUNEDIN — City bars will be able to stay open until 3 a.m., commissioners tentatively decided Thursday, shifting their reluctant support to a change celebrated by business owners as a way to compete with nightlife outside city limits.
Commissioners last month told county leaders they believed that a change from 2 to 3 a.m. could make roadways more dangerous, overextend deputies and cater to a younger, noisier and more boisterous clientele, turning Dunedin, in Commissioner Dave Carson's words, into "Ybor City West."
But in the weeks since, Pinellas County and Clearwater officials have voted to keep alcohol flowing until 3 a.m., a shift that leaders in Dunedin, now bordered on all sides with later closing times, found hard to resist.
"I don't want to act like we're being forced, but if we don't do it, we're talking about people going out and driving drunk and getting more drinks and coming back more drunk," Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said. "Given that we would be an island among ourselves, that makes me very uncomfortable."
Commissioners will take their final vote early next month, though their unanimous support at the proposal's first reading Thursday will probably continue. Business owners lent their support to the change earlier this month, saying they didn't want late-night drinkers to run to other establishments as closing time neared.
"If we're send them out to other cities to drink," said Gregory Brady, president of the Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association, "it's actually less safe than if they stayed."
Some residents have argued that keeping bars open later would lead to more disastrous public drunkenness.
Tim Keffalas of Tarpon Springs wrote commissioners on Wednesday to argue that the profits from letting bars stay open until 3 a.m. wouldn't "offset the expense in life and police costs."
Gaston Marticorena, a jewelry designer headquartered on Monroe Street, complained Thursday about bar patrons "disturbing the peace."
But the change from 2 to 3 a.m. has grown more widespread. Tampa changed its law in 2003, followed by St. Petersburg in May, Pinellas County last month and Clearwater this week. Largo passed the first reading of its move to the later time, and Oldsmar also has planned to go to 3 a.m. Tarpon Springs has not.
Carson, who gave "somewhat hesitant" support to the 3 a.m. switch Thursday, has likened conversation about the change to a similar debate in 2003, when the blue law banning Sunday alcohol sales before 1 p.m. was loosened to 11 a.m. in most local cities, including Dunedin, Largo, Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa.
A Baptist pastor told the Times then that the change was "sad, but probably not preventable in this cultural context."
Contact Drew Harwell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6244.