ST. PETERSBURG — It's been two years since the City Council approved pushing the closing times for bars and clubs back an hour to 3 a.m. While downtown nightlife has boomed with more bars and bigger crowds, Mayor Bill Foster and police have struggled with a hangover effect of fights and unruly behavior.
"I love what's happening downtown — most of the time," Foster said. "But (Police Chief) Chuck Harmon said there would be challenges if we extended the hours and we would have to deal with them. Well, he's been proven correct. There have been challenges, and we have to deal with them."
Yet during a 2½ hour meeting Thursday morning, Foster and council members came no closer to doing so. They reached no consensus on paying to patrol downtown streets to make them safer. Instead, they told city attorneys to draft more options and to wait to hear from the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce for suggestions.
Thursday's workshop revealed a deep philosophical divide. Foster and council member Wengay Newton say the clubs and bars should pay for security, considering they are the ones drawing the crowds.
"All I want is to come up with some revenue that will come close to covering the costs," Foster said. If bars and clubs don't pay more, "you're shifting the costs to the neighborhoods and the ad valorem taxpayer."
But council members Jeff Danner, Jim Kennedy, and Charlie Gerdes said they were hesitant to make bars and clubs pay anything more than a nominal fee.
"We pay taxes," Danner said. "If we need more police, we should hire more police."
Making all bars and clubs pay for those that cause problems would be like forcing the Vinoy Renaissance Resort and Golf Club to pay for issues caused by motels on 34th Street, Danner said.
Both sides agree there is a problem downtown. It's been more than a month since two men were shot after 2 a.m. at Scene Premium Night Club on Third Street in an alcohol-fueled confrontation. Last week, police broke up an early-morning fight involving 75 people outside of Scene. Police say there were four arrests there, including one for illegal possession of a semi-automatic firearm.
Foster said other establishments require constant police attention, such as Durty Nelly's, Vintage, The Bishop, MacDinton's, and the State Theater.
City attorneys presented a number of options, such as returning the closing time to 2 a.m., requiring a permit for all establishments that remain open after midnight, or imposing a security fee for businesses of a certain size or with recurring problems.
After several bar owners complained fees would make them reduce staff or move to a new location, council members told city attorneys to come up with more options.
But something needs to be done soon, said council member Steve Kornell.
"I'm appalled that there's illegal activity happening in some of our bars," Kornell said. "When it's happening flagrantly, you're allowing an environment for something worse to happen."