LARGO — It was billed as a monthly event to bring the city's businesses together. And although some say the First Friday events have done just that, they have also sparked a dispute between its organizers and the longtime owners of a nearby shopping center.
The dispute hit City Hall last week, with both sides making emotional pleas to the City Commission.
Herbert and Jane Wollowick, the shopping center owners, think the First Friday events are unfair to their tenants and unsafe. They urged city management to stop approving the event's permits, or force the organizers to move the Friday activities elsewhere.
Jennifer Lantry, 33, First Friday organizer and the owner of O'Shy's Irish Tap House, said her vendors and event attendees will make sure not to park on the Wollowicks' property. And she said their safety complaints are overblown.
City Manager Mac Craig thinks he has a solution, but it's unclear whether his idea will appease both sides.
Lantry started the First Friday events in July and has run at least one event per month since. Local artists and restaurants set up stands and sell their wares along First Avenue SW, which runs between O'Shy's Tap House and the Wollowicks' shopping center. When First Friday is underway, the road is closed to traffic between 6 and 11 p.m.
Vendors and attendees have been parking in the shopping center, the Wollowicks say, annoying the business owners there, and the tensions came to a head during the Nov. 12 Stone Crab & Seafood Festival, an extra November event Lantry organized.
The Wollowicks said one of their tenants called Saturday evening to tell them about being blocked in the parking lot. Herbert Wollowick declined to identify which tenant called.
Jane Wollowick complained to the commission that, when she arrived at the festival Saturday night, she found a generator set up on her property, people drinking and then driving away from the event at unsafe speeds, and excessively loud music. She also complained about bubbles being blown into the street.
"This is a lack of foresight on the part of the city in allowing this street fair. It will lead to serious problems," she said.
Lantry briefly broke into tears while defending her events to the commission and disputing the Wollowicks' safety complaints.
"I don't make loads of money, but it's a profit to me to see all of us together, bringing people from all over to this area," she said. "It is very family-oriented, it is very safe."
Several supporters of the First Friday events followed Lantry Tuesday night and spoke to the commission. Some sharply criticized the Wollowicks.
Herbert Wollowick said the next day he was surprised at how upset some of Lantry's supporters were. One of them yelled at the couple as they left City Hall.
"I find it quite annoying that I have to put up with this kind of stuff," said Wollowick, 71, a retired radiologist. He said he'd like to see the events moved somewhere else in the city with more space, and suggested Lantry's objections to that idea were purely financial.
"If they're so civic-minded, they could use one of these other areas, and move it around," he said.
City Manager Craig said Wednesday that the Wollowicks need to put larger signs up around their parking lot threatening to tow cars not associated with the businesses there. Craig also suggested the city may shorten the number of hours it permits Lantry to close First Avenue SW for December's First Friday.
Craig thinks those measures should settle the issue. Herbert Wollowick didn't declare one way or the other if Craig's proposed solution will be enough for his tenants.
"The last thing I want to do is tow people," Wollowick said. He and his wife, who live in Harbor Bluffs, have owned the center since 1985 and own other shopping centers in the area and in Sarasota County.
"It's always been perfectly peaceful," he said.
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org.