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Tampa council holds off on permits for bars to stay open past midnight

TAMPA — With business owners crowding the chambers, the City Council backed away Thursday from a proposal to require bars to get a city permit to stay open past midnight.

The proposal was built on a two-step process: First, roll back closing times from the current 3 a.m. to midnight. Second, let bar owners apply for a newly created business permit allowing them to stay open until 3 a.m. Those permits could be suspended or revoked if bars caused trouble.

"This proposal does two main things," said council member Yvonne Yolie Capin, who championed the idea but proposed a delay until February to give people time to learn about it.

"It gives certainty to business owners and neighbors," she said, and it "rewards good behavior and gives the city tools to quickly address bad behavior."

But bar owners, many from Ybor City, told the council the proposed rules would create red tape, hurt their bottom lines, kill jobs and make it harder to borrow money for new ventures.

Critics predicted the change would reduce sales at other, nonalcohol businesses in Ybor, discourage entrepreneurship and drive bar patrons outside Tampa.

"Why is it that our biggest nightmare is our own city?" asked Lux DeVoid, the co-owner of the Mermaid Tavern in Seminole Heights. "I can't sleep at night because the city is threatening to destroy my business through some administrative fiat."

The proposal also drew opposition from hoteliers, caterers and a recreational cruise ship that hosts late-night events. Several said the new rules would hobble businesses emerging from a recession that, one said, had them counting ice cubes.

"We appreciate what you're trying to accomplish," said Bob Morrison, the executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel & Motel Association. "Our sense is that what's before you doesn't get anywhere near where you desire to be."

But some neighborhoods that have suffered with bars tolerating crime, causing parking problems or making a lot of noise supported the proposal.

"What we're hearing today is that the sky is falling," Hyde Park resident John Jones said. He estimated that the new rules would probably affect only about 1 percent of the alcohol beverage establishments in the city.

Yes, Jones said, the permit would give the city a way to discipline businesses that cause problems, but for most "the stick does not put them out of business."

In the end, council members did not vote on the draft ordinances to change closing times and create the business permits. They also voted down Capin's request to hold a workshop in February.

Instead, Chairman Charlie Miranda appointed Capin to head an effort to study the subject further. The council will discuss details of that initiative Jan. 23.

Several council members said the intentions behind the proposal were good, but said communication had been lacking.

"We listen to what the business community says, and we would never, ever create burdens on you and try to destroy your businesses," council member Harry Cohen said.

"We care about you," he said. "We want to see you succeed. We want to see this be a community where tourists want to come and where people have a good time. We just have to solve some of the challenges that, as my fellow council members have said, we've been dealing with for years."

Proponents of the proposed permit say its advantage is that it could be easily suspended or revoked.

That's not the case with city zonings for alcohol sales, which are very hard to take away.

In late 2011, the problem gained added urgency after shootings at two nightclubs in or near Ybor City.

First, 20-year-old Leslie Jones Jr. was shot dead in the VIP room of the Empire Night Club. A second man, 19, was shot in the chest and seriously wounded. After the shooting, Jones' mother began protesting in front of the club, which later closed.

The following month, gunshots wounded five men at Club Manilla on E Seventh Avenue, east of Ybor City.

As drafted, the new rules would have affected only businesses that serve drinks that are consumed on the premises — not supermarkets, liquor stores or minimarts that sell alcohol only to go.

Also, the rollback in hours would not have affected bars, restaurants or nightclubs that have special use permits, a form of alcohol sales zoning where the council has voted to establish the closing time of the business.

As proposed, the extended-hours permits could be suspended or revoked if:

• The permit-holder stayed open or allowed patrons to drink after 3 a.m.

• The business had any two violations of certain laws anywhere on the premises within a 12-month period. The list of offenses includes felony possession of controlled substances, the unlawful possession or use of a gun, selling alcohol to minors, homicide, manslaughter, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, sexual battery or felony lewd and lascivious behavior.

• The business had four cases of criminal possession of marijuana within six months.

Tampa council holds off on permits for bars to stay open past midnight 12/05/13 [Last modified: Thursday, December 5, 2013 11:09pm]
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