NEW PORT RICHEY — On Tuesday night, at a City Council work session, restaurateur Juan DeSosa approached the microphone and described a problem.
"We've got a dead city," he said. "Come pay my bills, and you're going to find out how dead we are."
One answer to the problem, as DeSosa sees it? Changing a city ordinance to allow nonprofit groups to sell beer and wine during special events, such as Chasco Fiesta's country music concerts, at Sims Park.
"We've got an ordinance here that kills us," said DeSosa, 81, who owns Juan's Black Bean Cafe on Main Street. "The more people who come down here, the more people come to my restaurant."
City Council members discussed possible changes to the alcohol ordinance, which prohibits beer and wine in Sims Park, widely seen as the city's best entertainment venue.
For many of those who spoke, a change represented an effort to breathe life into the downtown. They spoke of attracting classy arts shows like a monthly one held in Safety Harbor, people with money to spend and business owners who might see a reason to move into an empty storefront on Main Street.
Lifelong resident Chuck Grey said the city is at a critical juncture, and he wondered what his grandfather and father would say about the issue.
"The last thing they'd want to do is see the death of the city," said Grey, who is one of the organizers for Chasco Fiesta. "Do you think anybody is going to come to an arts festival if you can't get wine? We can't keep doing the same old thing and getting the same results, and that's nothing."
In an interview later, he acknowledged that empty storefronts are also a function of the poor economy. But he said the alcohol restrictions mean that big festivals — and whatever visitors and business come with it — will go elsewhere. "We can't even compete with other cities," he said.
Outnumbered at Tuesday's meeting, critics of having alcohol in the park questioned the likelihood of a trickle-down benefit. They also said selling beer and wine at Sims would taint the park's family atmosphere and violate a 2000 referendum on the matter.
"They already told you in the past they don't want alcohol in the park," said Greg Giordano, a members of the parks and recreation advisory board.
Later, in an interview, Girodano said he'd not seen strong evidence that more festivals or attendees would bring more business. "I don't know that having a festival is going to fill empty buildings," he said.
In the end, council members were split on changing the ordinance, but asked City Manager Tom O'Neill to draft a revised ordinance they can vote on at a future council meeting.
Mayor Scott McPherson and council member Rob Marlowe spoke in favor of allowing the sales while Deputy Mayor Bob Consalvo and council member Marilynn deChant opposed it.
Council member Judy Debella Thomas, executive director of Greater New Port Richey Main Street, was absent.
Currently, the city may grant permits to nonprofit groups, including Greater New Port Richey Main Street or West Pasco Chamber of Commerce, to sell alcohol at special downtown events and festivals.
The only city-owned property where alcohol can be sold is Cavalaire Square, a pocket park south of Main Street.
Police officers are posted along Main Street to stop people from taking beers and wine into Sims.
McPherson, who requested the item be put up for discussion, made the unusual step of putting on a slide show Tuesday based on information he had researched.
His findings showed that New Port Richey has one of the most restrictive alcohol ordinances in Pasco County. He also pointed to examples of successful Tampa Bay events held at public parks, including Ribfest at Vinoy Park, which raises $2-million for sick children, child abuse prevention and scholarships. Organizers of that event told him Ribfest could not exist without alcohol sales.
But deChant said when she ran a downtown arts festival for nine years, she never thought its success depended on wine sales.
She questioned whether the park's family friendly reputation would be in jeopardy.
McPherson shot back: "It's insane to think somebody would be selling beer at the playground."
"Are we not grown up enough and everybody else is?" he said. "I'm sorry. I certainly want to address this objectively … I just feel so strongly this is important for revitalization."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.