st. PETE BEACH — Patrons of the Swigwam Beach Bar have less than 30 days left to enjoy imbibing from their sidewalk seats.
Last week, the City Commission invoked a 30-day notice clause to cancel a two-year-old agreement that allowed outdoor seating on the sidewalk where patrons could take their drinks and smoke in the open air.
When some audience members wanted to speak in defense of the Swigwam, Mayor Steve McFarlin flatly refused, drawing loud protests.
"There is not going to be any public discussion. It's not the attending mob rules," McFarlin told the upset audience as he called for a vote.
The 3-2 decision was a mirror image of the original 3-2 decision to allow the sidewalk drinking.
The changed vote was the result of the outcome of the March election when Lorraine Huhn won the District 1 commission seat.
She called for the Swigwam's sidewalk privileges to be rescinded because of what she says were growing complaints from other businesses and patrons along Corey Avenue.
"I had a flood of calls from other business owners," Huhn said, explaining that other business owners complain how the Swigwam, at 336 Corey Ave., is unable to prevent its customers from blocking the sidewalk and intimidating passers-by.
Former District 1 Commissioner Al Halpern criticized the commission decision, saying the Swigwam and other businesses like it help to create "the vibrant beach atmosphere that's expected by our visitors."
McFarlin was particularly strident in his continued opposition to the Swigwam's use of the sidewalk, describing at length how his daughter was subjected to catcalls from patrons when she was driving by in her car.
"I am going to be real simple with this. We tried something and the fears we had came to fruition," McFarlin said. "What we did was bring barroom activity out on the street."
McFarlin said the behavior of many of the Swigwam patrons has been "offensive and intimidating to a lot of people."
Commissioner Bev Garnett agreed, saying that the height of the Adirondack-style chairs outside the Swigwam put the patrons "right in the face" of people walking on the sidewalk.
Garnett, who voted to rescind the sidewalk agreement, did say she would be willing to reconsider in the future if the Swigwam could find a "workable solution."
Huhn said she had tried finding a compromise, but other Corey businesses objected.
Swigwam owner Rob Williams said he had been blindsided two weeks before when Huhn first proposed canceling the agreement and then again that day when she called him two hours before the commission meeting to tell him she would no longer support any compromise.
Williams had proposed turning the Adirondack chairs sideways instead of facing the street to provide more free walking space on the sidewalk.
He also showed pictures of other businesses, bars and restaurants on Corey and in Pass-a-Grille that are allowed to have outside seating.
"I don't think it is fair," Williams said.
He said since he opened the Swigwam more than two years ago, seven new businesses have opened or are about to open on that section of Corey Avenue.
"We are exactly what Corey needs," he said. "We need more bars, more restaurants, more people on the street."
Commissioners Jim Parent and Marvin Shavlan unsuccessfully argued that a poll of other Corey Avenue business owners found the majority actually favor the Swigwam's sidewalk seating.
"This is an exquisitely difficult thing," said Parent, adding that personality conflicts among Corey business owners have "stirred things up."
Shavlan said he never saw a problem in the many times he has been on Corey Avenue.
"To rescind it seems a little harsh," he said.
Ironically, about 2 feet of the sidewalk in front of the Swigwam is private property owned by building's owner and the Swigwam's liquor license allows outside service, according to Williams and Shavlan.
That means that even after the sidewalk alcohol agreement ends, Swigwam patrons can still bring their drinks outside and smoke as long as they stay within that 2-foot space.
They can't step on the sidewalk if they are holding alcohol, however, since it is illegal according to city codes.