NEW PORT RICHEY — Local bar owners may get a sales boost during special events if city leaders agree to relax their open container laws, allowing patrons to take their drinks to go.
After an informational meeting Tuesday evening with police Chief Jeffrey Harrington, state alcohol regulators and local bar owners, City Council members said they would consider such a measure.
Bar owners said their sales have been hampered by a city ordinance that prohibits customers from leaving their establishments with alcohol in hand, while nonprofit groups sell beer and wine at street parties right outside their doors.
"I think if all of us worked together as equal partners, we could all be happy," said Dan Kuntz, owner of Fitzgerald's Irish Tavern on Nebraska Avenue.
At the meeting — which several City Council members attended — officials with the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco said there is no state law that prohibits customers from leaving a bar with an open container of beer. But once a patron hits the streets, the city ordinances kick in.
In New Port Richey's case, one sentence in the ordinance ties bar owners' hands during special events:
"Only those alcoholic beverages that are sold by the applicant (hosting the special event) within the secured areas shall be permitted to be possessed, consumed, or purchased within the said secured areas."
The group hosting the event must map out the "secured areas" where revelers are allowed to have alcohol.
Many special events are held in Railroad Square, a block the city spent nearly $1 million revamping for such street parties. That area along Nebraska Avenue, between Grand Boulevard and Adams Street, is also home to many of New Port Richey's bars.
The goal of Railroad Square was to help downtown businesses, so they should not be held back or "harassed" by the city if customers want to leave with a beer during an event, Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe argued.
"Obviously we want our businesses to survive and thrive," he said.
Some bar owners called on city officials to fast-track the changes before the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce's Bike Fest, which will be held Oct. 7-9. But City Manager John Schneiger said it would take longer than that to change the ordinance.
The chamber's Bike Fest coordinator, Dan Sullivan, said he hoped the city would consider all the implications as it revisits the ordinance. He believes bar owners should contribute to special events such as Bike Fest and Chasco Fiesta with funding or promotional support if they are going be able to cut into nonprofit beer sales.
"I would also be concerned about liability. They should have to help with insurance costs," Sullivan said.
But that may be a difficult pitch to bar owners who are still struggling in the economic downturn.
"We're all nonprofits right now," one business owner joked Tuesday night, getting laughs from his colleagues.
During a City Council meeting following the information session with bar owners, Marlowe asked Schneiger to bring options to the council for easing the restrictions.
Council member Judy DeBella Thomas and Mayor Bob Consalvo supported looking into the issue as well.
"It makes sense," Consalvo said. "We want to help out our businesses."