ST. PETE BEACH — At the same time the city is considering rerouting traffic on Gulf Boulevard to boost the profile of the Corey Avenue business district, last week the commission nearly shut down one of the district's most popular businesses, the Swigwam Beach Bar.
The 3-2 vote to allow the bar to continue to sell alcohol to patrons sitting in chairs on the sidewalk outside the bar echoed an equally sharp split among Corey Avenue business owners.
Voting to keep Swigwam customers' ability to imbibe and smoke in the open air on the 10-foot-wide public sidewalk were Commissioners Al Halpern, Jim Parent and Marvin Shavlan.
Both Mayor Steve McFarlin and Commissioner Bev Garnett voted "no," objecting mostly to smoke that might irritate passers-by.
About a year ago, the commission granted the Swigwam permission to sell alcohol to customers seated in chairs on the sidewalk outside the bar at 336 Corey Ave.
In recent months, complaints from nearby businesses escalated. In response, the city was asked to rescind the sidewalk permit.
Particularly at issue were reports that inebriated Swigwam patrons intimidated and drove away other businesses' customers.
Twenty-two members of a virtually standing-room-only audience argued both for and against the Swigwam's permit for six sidewalk chairs.
Several business owners, one nearly in tears, demanded that the city shut down the Swigwam sidewalk business.
At the same time, many other business owners, including the president of the Corey Avenue Business Association, strongly defended the Swigwam and its customers, arguing there were no real problems and the bar helped to bring people to the Corey Avenue district.
"I am really not happy with how this was campaigned behind my back. Nobody has come to me and complained," Swigwam owner Robert Williams said. "Where is the proof? My business is at stake. I am proud of what we have done."
Some of his business neighbors adamantly disagreed.
"Rob is a nice guy, the business is nice to have. But happy hour? No," said the owner of Vincent William Gallery.
He said several women came into his store and said they were afraid to walk by the Swigwam.
The owner of a pet grooming business said she lost at least one customer who was "uncomfortable" walking by the bar.
"They drink, they spill their drinks, they come into my store with their drinks. I have shelves full of glass, pottery and jewelry. I am sorry but that is not what we need," Annette Kapfer, owner of the Kapfer Glass Studio, said, her voice noticeably quavering.
Other Corey Avenue business owners strongly defended the Swigwam.
The owner of the Simply Perfect gift shop, directly across Corey Avenue, said the Swigwam is good for business.
"I have never seen a problem," said Jeremy Shaefer, owner of the Wheelhouse Pizza and Deli, next door to the Swigwam.
Many of the 400 people who signed Williams' petition opposing rescinding the sidewalk liquor sales also appeared at the commission meeting.
One resident, who said he was a founding dean of the USF School of Medicine, retired to St. Pete Beach and, along with his white cockatoo, is a regular Swigwam customer.
"The Swigwam has an international reputation," he said. "I have never witnessed any problems."
Another customer who said he is Tampa's chief deputy property appraiser and a weekend city resident, called the Swigwam "a very special place" that attracts a mostly professional and retired clientele.
Jeff Janson, CABA president, said Corey Avenue was "all but a blighted area" when he started his Point of You Interior Design business in 2006.
"Today we have a revitalized business district with people reinvesting," Janson said.
Parent said he found it "awkward" for the city to "step in between business relationships."
Commissioner Shavlan said he spent several days visiting Corey Avenue at different times of the day and found the Swigwam to be a "positive thing" for the business district.