TAMPA — In the wake of shootings at two clubs late last year, the Tampa City Council Thursday voted to explore new, tougher regulations on nightclubs, including a possible ban on patrons younger than 21.
Tampa clubs currently can admit customers who are 18 to 20 years old, but cannot serve them alcohol.
After hearing from an assistant city attorney that the city has the legal authority to prohibit the younger customers from the clubs, council members asked city staff to work up a range of options they can consider on May 24.
One nightclub owner said he would oppose any rule that banned 18-year-olds from his premises.
"I think they need places to go instead of hanging out on the corner," Club Manilla landlord Fred Schwartz told the council.
"I agree with you: people 18 years old need somewhere to go," council member Lisa Montelione responded, but not a place that serves drinks to adults into the wee hours of the morning. "That's inviting trouble."
The council had asked for a report on what new nightclub regulations it could create after a shooting in November that wounded five men at Club Manilla, at 2620 E Seventh Ave., east of the Ybor City entertainment district.
Council members' concerns also were fueled by the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Leslie Jones Jr. at Ybor City's once-notorious Empire Night Club on Oct. 2. A second man, Ahmaud Black, 19, was shot in the chest and seriously wounded. After the shooting, Jones' mother Sharon began protesting in front of the club. Attendance dropped dramatically, and Empire closed after Guavaween.
Council members aren't alone in their concerns.
The board of the Ybor City Development Corporation recently endorsed the idea of more closely regulating nightclubs, said Vince Pardo, the corporation's manager. A broad range of Ybor stakeholders, including both businesses and residents, support trying to get a better handle on "high risk" establishments, the large clubs that stay open past midnight and cater to 18, 19 and 20 year olds, he said.
About 20 communities across Florida have some sort of regulation prohibiting patrons younger than 21 in nightclubs, Assistant City Attorney Rebecca Kert said.
"There's many other options that you can consider," she said, "and it will be up to you to balance the burden on the business that's being regulated with the benefit that will be given to the community as a whole."
The top priority for police, she said, would be to require larger clubs to hire more extra-duty officers to help keep the peace. Since 1995, the city has required clubs with permitted occupancies of 250 or more to hire two extra-duty officers, but Kert said there's no additional requirement if the club's capacity reaches, say, 1,000.
That 1995 rule has a couple of other problems, she said. One, it only applied to new alcohol beverage approvals — previously known as "wet zonings" — granted under city land-use regulations. That meant that clubs that got their wet-zonings before 1995 were grandfathered in and did not have to hire any extra-duty officers, no matter how big they were.
Also, the 1995 rule applies only to clubs in Ybor City, Channelside or downtown.
With any new regulations, Kert suggested that the city consider writing them under its codes for business regulation, not land use. That would mean no business would be grandfathered. Also, it could require nightclubs to apply for a business permit or license that had to be renewed annually. Clubs that broke the rules could face not having their permits renewed or could see them revoked after a hearing.
But that's not all. In some places, bouncers are required to be licensed by the state, Kert said. While Florida's licensing system does not have a bouncer category, she noted that it does have categories for security officers, which means that the person doing the job would have to be vetted by the state with a background check.
The city also could charge a fee for the nightclub permit that would generate enough revenue to cover the cost of enforcing the rules. It could require a manager be on duty so that if there were any violations there would be someone to hold accountable. And it could tie getting the permit to going through crowd management training done by the Tampa Fire Marshal's Office.
"There are many different options to how you can do this," Kert said. "Those will be the policy decisions."
While council members made no commitments, they do want to know more about their options, including the possible ban on customers younger than 21.
"I don't think having 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds in an establishment after 11 o'clock at night where alcohol is being served is a good idea," Montelione said.
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com, (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.