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University of Tampa fights nearby bar's request to sell liquor

TAMPA — The photograph snapped in 1946 shows a bartender standing stoically in front of a wall full of liquor bottles.

Sixty-three years later, the new owners of that old saloon near the University of Tampa say that's all the evidence they need to prove they have the legal right to sell hard liquor, despite the university's objections.

Attorneys for UT argue that owner Rick Calderoni, who also owns the Green Iguana restaurants, doesn't have the proper license for the hard stuff.

But his attorney, Mark Bentley, points to a city code that went into effect in 1945, when Tampa enacted its wet-zoning regulations. And the old rule says any business that had a state license to sell alcohol at that time could keep selling the types of drinks permitted by the license.

Over the years, the space has operated as Milano Restaurant, Dave's Grill, Albi's 123, the Peanut Gallery and the Mouse Trap, and at some point began selling only beer and wine.

Bentley says he can't put his hands on the original Florida liquor license because the old records have been purged. But he does have a Burgert Brothers photo taken on Jan. 29, 1946, and the sworn testimony from customers, now in their 80s, who remember drinking cocktails in the bar.

The Burgert Brothers were local commercial photographers whose work vividly captured Tampa life between the 1890s and the 1960s.

The old photo and testimony was good enough for a city zoning administrator, who approved liquor sales by the bar, called the Retreat, in March 2008.

UT did not let the matter rest.

The college appealed the ruling to the city's Variance Review Board, which in December upheld the administrator's decision.

Now the university is taking it up with the Tampa City Council, which will consider the appeal on Thursday.

"The legal issue is whether or not they had a license in 1945," said Dave Mechanik, an attorney for UT. "They produce a picture of a bar with a lot of liquor bottles. That doesn't prove they had a license."

Bob Ruday, UT's dean of students, said the university opposes any requests that expand alcohol sales near the school.

"We're concerned about our student safety," he said.

A member of the Tampa Alcohol Coalition, Ruday says that, like every college in the country, UT already has enough problems with student drinking.

A Florida Senate study released in 2006 reported that the University of Tampa had more alcohol-related incidents — more than 2,000 — over a five-year period than any other school that participated in the study.

Allowing liquor sales nearby only makes those problems worse, Ruday said.

"They get drunk much faster and at a higher level than with beer," he said.

The Retreat is in a building on Hyde Park Avenue that now also includes the Cafe European restaurant, a hemp clothing store and the Christian Science Reading Room.

Calderoni says he bought the bar in 2006 as a reprieve from the stress of his bigger businesses, and likes its neighborhood feel and long history.

"It's nice to keep some of these little places alive," he said.

But he needs the hard alcohol sales to boost his annual revenues, which stand to gain as much as $200,000.

"It's really hard to compete with just beer," he said.

Calderoni wonders why the university is doing so much hand-wringing.

"The University of Tampa keeps bringing up the fact that they don't want alcohol, they don't want alcohol, they don't want alcohol, and yet they still allow alcohol in the dorms," he said, pointing to a student handbook that says students over the age of 21 can bring alcohol into residence halls.

Calderoni said his bar is open only to people over 21, and UT students are not targeted customers.

"We run a good operation," he said. "We're not trying to get a kid in there and get them drunk."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

University of Tampa fights nearby bar's request to sell liquor 03/03/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 8:57am]
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