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St. Petersburg's bikini bars feeling exposed

ST. PETERSBURG — Ever since a June 5 raid of the Bottom to the Top night club, city officials have said that they aren't targeting bikini bars, which are allowed by city code.

But a series of sweeps last week are raising doubts about that claim.

Last week, on a Tuesday night, two downtown police officers visited Club Sinn, a bikini bar at 340 First Ave. N, to conduct a compliance check of the bar's licenses.

Three days later, about 10 officers dressed in black entered Club Sinn to check the same licenses, as well as the fire exits and fire extinguishers.

Following that inspection, the officers visited two other bikini bars — Café Adagio at 1111 Central Ave. and Bottom to the Top, the target of the raid, at 1101 1st Ave. N. No other bars were checked that night, said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.

Top city officials said they weren't aware that bikini bars were being singled out.

"I didn't know anything about it," said Mayor Bill Foster. "I've given no directive to target any specific businesses at all. I will discuss this with (police Chief Chuck) Harmon, but I won't be giving him any directive about how to do his job. I don't micromanage the police department."

Harmon said Tuesday that he didn't know why Club Sinn was inspected twice in one week. He also said he didn't know why as many as 10 officers in the street crimes unit spent part of Friday night inspecting bikini bars.

"If we're going in with that many people, I have a concern about that," Harmon said. "We shouldn't be doing that."

But Harmon also said the city wasn't treating bikini bars any differently than regular bars.

"We do bar checks as a matter of routine," Harmon said. "Anytime they are open for business, we can inspect them."

Yet having the police check bar licenses seems unusual for other, non-bikini bars. Take Ferg's Sports Bar, which is near Tropicana Field and across the street from police headquarters. Owner Mark Ferguson said he can't remember the last time police checked his liquor license.

Harmon said perhaps, in the wake of the Bottom to the Top raid, which led to nine people being arrested and charged with ordinance violations for public exposure, officers were "instructed to keep an eye on these places."

Harmon said he would look into what happened. Later, department spokesman Proffitt called back and said that the vice and narcotics division, which conducted the original raid, requested that patrol units do frequent bar checks whenever they had the chance.

"It's obvious what they're doing," said Club Sinn owner Heather Rardin. "It sounds like there's a crackdown on bikini bars."

Bikini bars pose a dilemma for the city. They don't qualify as adult use establishments, so they aren't prohibited from being closer than 400 feet from churches, schools and day care centers. They simply must follow the general rules of a regular bar.

City attorneys told concerned council members that they couldn't place further restrictions on the suddenly trendy clubs — four have opened or plan to open since November — because dancing is a constitutionally protected right.

But more scrutiny by law enforcement could have the same negative effect, said Feriz Boskovic, who opened Café Adagio about two weeks ago.

"When people see a SWAT team around my place, they don't go in," he said. "They are scaring people. They are destroying my business. Why are they trying to stop me now? The city told me it was OK to do a bikini bar, now they do this. I'm so stuck."

At the June 5 raid of Bottom to the Top, Foster described the club as "a nasty place."

"Quite frankly," he continued, "these places aren't welcome in St. Petersburg."

Rardin of Club Sinn says Foster's comments implied all bikini bars were like Bottom to the Top, which she said was widely known for breaking city rules.

"We don't," Rardin said. "But all of a sudden, because they did the wrong thing at Bottom to the Top, the heat is on me. We haven't done anything wrong, but our customers are scared to come inside."

St. Petersburg's bikini bars feeling exposed 06/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 10:59am]
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