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With longer bar hours in effect, Mayor Foster seeks help to ward off financial hangover

ST. PETERSBURG — Downtown's bar binge is losing its buzz.

When the City Council voted in May to shift closing time from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. for clubs and bars that serve alcohol, council member Jim Kennedy said it would make St. Petersburg's downtown more vibrant and economically viable.

But bigger late night crowds are draining city resources by forcing more officers to work longer hours to keep downtown secure, said Mayor Bill Foster.

"I'm hearing from the police that it's taxing our resources," Foster said. "So much so that sustaining this is going to be difficult."

Police officials estimate they've had to pay an extra 100 hours of overtime a month on downtown alone to cope with the new closing time.

The police unions — who also happen to be close political allies of the mayor — said the extra hour is making a big difference.

"The more people drink, the more stupidity that prevails," said Sgt. Karl Lounge, a union leader. "I could never have imagined the difference one hour would make in alcohol-related events."

• • •

Foster met with several owners of downtown bars on Monday to discuss ways they could help pick up the tab. Help would be appreciated, he notes, given that in January the city will begin taking homeless people to a new shelter on 49th Street, which might require more officers.

"I need to make sure that we have the right amount of people on the street," Foster said. "So I'm asking them, 'Just help us out. You guys are making money. Let's work together.' "

Brendan McDowell, who owns a marketing firm that represents many downtown clients, helped organize the meeting, which was attended by the owners of the Bishop Tavern and Lounge, Durty Nelly's, Red Mesa Cantina, PUSH Ultra Lounge, Vintage Ultra Lounge and others.

"It was a great meeting," McDowell said. "I can't think of any other mayor who would meet with businesses to see how it can be done better. To get all these owners in one room and agree, it was incredible."

So far at least, nothing has been decided. But Foster, McDowell and others said they are considering several options to defray city costs.

One is the possible formation of an association of bars and downtown businesses that will pay the salaries of off-duty officers. It's not clear how many officers would be needed, or which businesses would contribute.

"We're trying to get everyone on board, from the big night clubs to the small pizza joints," said David Marshlack, owner of the Bishop. "But it's still being formed, so we don't know yet what it will look like."

Detective Mark Marland, president of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, said more off-duty officers would help. That's because officers paid by one bar are finding themselves having to handle trouble at bars that didn't pay.

But doesn't all the extra overtime and off-duty jobs benefit officers, too?

"It's a two-way street," Marland said. "Obviously it is going to benefit the officers working off-duty. But it will also take the burden off the city because right now some businesses owners are getting for free what the guy across the street might be paying for."

Another option could be turning taps off earlier but keeping bars open longer, so patrons have more time to sober up, Foster said.

"I'm open to anything," Marshlack said. "If we don't do anything, we know what's going to happen. We watched what happened with BayWalk. It was doing really well, and the city didn't police it well, and now it's gone. We want to keep what we have safe. If we want to bear those costs among us, we'll do that."

• • •

The BayWalk shopping and entertainment complex opened in 2000 to robust crowds. But crowds have dwindled since, and many people blame that on a perceived security problem after well-publicized incidents of fights and accidents.

The city doesn't want that to happen to downtown. Foster and bar owners invoke the example of Ybor City, the Tampa entertainment district that once suffered from similar image problems.

"We don't want to become an Ybor," Foster said. "There hasn't been any one incident that has caused this concern. It's just that, especially on Fridays, there's a ton of people."

The Police Department said Thursday it could not immediately provide recent numbers on police calls to downtown bars to show how its workload had changed. A spokesman referred all questions to the mayor.

But union officials said the crowds aren't just bigger; they're drinking more, staying later and getting into more trouble all over downtown — and not just in the Jannus Live corridor along First Avenue N.

When the bars closed at 2 a.m., many people had already left to party later in Tampa, said Officer George Lofton, Suncoast Police Benevolent Association vice president. But now they're sticking around until last call.

• • •

Not all bar owners say they've seen an increase in business since closing was pushed back from 2 a.m. James Guttridge, owner of Vintage, says his business has gone up about 15 percent since April. But Marshlack and Matt Donahue, of PUSH, says they haven't had bigger crowds.

They both say they are retaining more customers who would have gone to Tampa to drink, but that they are only drinking later. Business before 11 p.m. has dropped, they say.

Kennedy, who was the lead advocate in extending the hours, said he'd welcome any monetary assistance bars could provide the city. But he also said he'd be reluctant to limit the time bars can serve alcohol.

"The longer hours are serving the purpose of keeping our young people from driving across the bridge and back," Kennedy said. "I don't know if you can put a price on that. I'd have to think about it before agreeing to cutting the hours back."

With longer bar hours in effect, Mayor Foster seeks help to ward off financial hangover 12/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 30, 2010 10:22pm]

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