DUNEDIN — Eight years ago, the owners of Meranova Guest Inn, a bed and breakfast on downtown's Virginia Lane, began bracing for the noise of the bars and nightclubs nearby.
They hung soundproof curtains. They installed 3 inches of professionally made foam into the windows. And when guests awakened by the racket complained the next morning, employees soothed them with a free night's stay or a bottle of champagne.
But as Dunedin's downtown grew over the years into one of the county's most popular night spots, the owners realized their defense didn't always work.
"It doesn't deaden the Harleys," co-owner Frank Baiamonte said. "It doesn't deaden the sirens. And it doesn't deaden a high-pitched scream from a woman that draws us to the window to make sure everything's okay."
As you might guess, Baiamonte speaks from experience. He and other residents have complained that the city's loud crowds have burdened them with sleepless nights, and that local noise codes, which order outdoor music stopped after 11 p.m., are rarely enforced.
Though arguments over noise are nothing new, the local debate was reignited in September when the City Commission joined the county in extending local last calls until 3 a.m.
To abate worries over the change, City Manager Rob DiSpirito asked for the creation of a small group open to representatives from both neighborhoods and local businesses. It was called the Live Work Play Sleep Task Force — the Sleep part added at the residents' suggestion.
"The tourists and guests staying downtown have sensed exactly what the residents have," Baiamonte said. "There needs to be some adjustment."
But not everybody is so critical about the sounds of the city.
Kathy Carlson, a founder of the Dunedin Downtown Merchants Association, calls herself downtown's biggest cheerleader. As co-owner of Kelly's, Blur and the Chic a Boom Room — an interlaced restaurant, nightclub and martini bar near the head of Main Street — she defends the business boom with reminders of how sparse downtown was when Kelly's opened in 1989.
Last week, Carlson printed about 400 small fliers urging residents to e-mail the City Commission in support of a "vibrant prosperous downtown." Waiters included them along with receipts during Sunday brunch.
"If you love to live, work & play in our little burg, please let the powers that be know it," Carlson wrote. "Lately, they have only heard the complainers."
Business leaders have already shown they have the power to organize. Last month, before one of the task force's four meetings, leaders rallied supporters to attend.
"Our livelihood is being threatened," Dunedin Brewery co-owner Kandi Bryant wrote in an e-mail. "We need to let the city know how important our businesses are to the economic health and future of the downtown."
Matthew Campbell, assistant to the city manager, attempted to tamp the furor.
"Apparently, word of this meeting has spread like 'wildfire' throughout the city," he wrote in an e-mail. "We may need to cancel these meetings and seek a much (larger) venue … to accommodate the much larger group that appears to be forming."
The coming winter is a critical season for downtown. Residents opening their windows to the cool air find themselves ear-to-ear with businesses struggling to fill the sales gaps opened during the slow summer months.
But business owners say they're already doing their best to tamp down sound, including turning the outside music off at 11 p.m. At the Dunedin Brewery, where drinkers can sit in a large outdoor patio on Douglas Avenue, bartenders check noise levels every hour to ensure they're within the law.
That may not be enough. Most local complaints stem from loud outdoor conversations, rather than music.
"On Fridays and Saturdays, sometimes the crowd noise is louder than everyone else," Carlson said. "That, we can't control. 'Stop having fun!' No talking!' "
The task force's recommendations will be presented to commissioners next month, said city planning and development director Greg Rice.
Among the suggestions: hire two off-duty deputies to patrol downtown late at night; hire a sound engineer to consult with businesses; and add signs in bars and restaurants that advise visitors to be considerate of sleeping neighbors.
Whether those will be enough to deal with the concerns remains to be seen.
"There are just people that shouldn't be living downtown," Carlson said. "It's been a business district since 1890. You've got to expect there's going to be some noise."
Contact Drew Harwell at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.