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St. Petersburg to debate letting bars stay open until 3 a.m.

ST. PETERSBURG — Dave Mamber says he lost nearly 40 percent of his liquor sales when his bar was forced to reduce its hours of operation after it was annexed into the city in 2003.

But with a little help from the City Council, Mamber's bar, Dave's Aqua Lounge on Gandy Boulevard, might keep the drinks flowing a little longer. The board voted unanimously Thursday to consider extending closing time in city bars from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. to better compete with Tampa's night scene.

"It's about time," Mamber said. "This is a very good move."

The city attorney will draft a new set of rules governing how long bars can operate. The proposed changes will be aired at two public hearings.

It should be a lively debate, pitting tavern and club owners, who think the 2 a.m. closing time is costing them business, against neighborhoods wary of prolonged partying that would disturb sleeping residents.

Mamber said he has had several chats with council member Jim Kennedy, who proposed the extension of bar hours. For Kennedy, the issue is a matter of economics.

"Let the market decide how long the bars should stay open," said Kennedy, who was raised in New Jersey. "I grew up in factory towns where the bars were open all day."

Longer hours would help make downtown more "active and vibrant" while making it safer for residents, Kennedy said. "(Extended hours) are beneficial because our residents don't have to travel so far."

The measure is by no means a done deal.

Several council members voiced misgivings about the change, especially after police Chief Chuck Harmon said there would be ramifications.

"Will crime increase because of longer hours?" Harmon told the council. "Yes. Slightly. We will make more arrests."

Harmon said while Tampa has longer hours of operation, other cities in Pinellas have rules forcing bars to close at 2 a.m. If St. Petersburg extends drinking times by an hour, then thrill seekers from those cities would migrate to St. Petersburg, potentially bringing more crime.

"I don't see a positive here," said council member Herb Polson.

Even if the City Council approves the changes, Mayor Bill Foster could reject them. In 2006, then-Mayor Rick Baker threatened to veto a proposed extension of packaged liquor hours from midnight to 2 a.m. Foster at the time agreed with Baker, saying he didn't want to encourage early-morning alcohol runs.

Foster said he hasn't taken a stance yet this time around.

"An economic argument could be made for extending the hours," Foster said. "I don't know. I'm in bed when these things are happening."

St. Petersburg to debate letting bars stay open until 3 a.m. 02/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2010 10:13pm]

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