So a Tampa City Council member walks into a bar. And another bar. And another bar.
No, it's not the stress of this city — the busy, beery part of his South Tampa district in particular — that has council member Harry Cohen haunting Irish pubs and cocktail lounges along teeming South Howard Avenue. (SoHo, to those in the know.)
For weeks he has been sipping a ginger ale here, a seltzer there, on a fact-finding mission along the SoHo entertainment district through trendy Hyde Park. The goal: some kind of rapprochement between residents and bars and restaurants that range from Bern's steak house and the chi-chi new Epicurean Hotel to World of Beer. Not to be confused with nearby Yard of Ale.
To be fair, some neighbors were here long before this main street became a traffic-clogged hot spot, while others moved in knowing this was out there — maybe even because of it. But residents call the traffic a nuisance, the noise too loud. Bar patrons who drift into the quiet bungalowed streets have been known to turn tidily-tended azaleas into handy Port-O-Lets. Not pretty.
But a big problem is parking. Or the lack thereof.
Historic is why a lot of people want to live in Hyde Park, for its lovely old houses, generous Southern porches, clapboard and brick. (Plenty of hipster apartments and condos have sprung up since, too.) Howard Avenue is also old, and also narrow. Wide sidewalks installed at a complex were cause for celebration. Parking lots are limited, and fun-seekers often find street space where they can.
So the intrepid council member spent the last few weeks checking out restaurants and bars. (And also talking to business owners and neighborhood groups, and riding with Tampa police, too.)
One surprise, he says: At 44, he felt conspicuously older in some places, not so much in others. Turns out Howard is not all college kids in search of cheap beer. (Or Irish beer. Or craft beer.)
He saw patrons at the high-energy Drynk nightclub and lounge willing to shell out a couple hundred bucks for VIP bottle service, which, to those of us unfamiliar with the ways of modern clubbing, turns out to include your own bottle of liquor at the table, mixers and a server dedicated to you.
He saw more people than ever walking up and down Howard, not the most walkable street in a pretty unwalkable town. Hello, wide sidewalks?
One night at 11:30 p.m. outside the Lodge, he saw a Marriott Waterside bus full of folk well out of their 30s disembarking. "People who come to Tampa want to go out at night," he says. "They're definitely attracted to our night life, and they spend money." Which, he believes, augers well for the planned revamp of Channelside near those downtown hotels and could lessen the burden on Howard.
Cohen is not done with his instructive pub crawl, but already he's got ideas: maybe metered parking on wide nearby Platt Street, which is a thoroughfare and not a quiet side street. (The City Council will talk about that Aug. 7.) Maybe money made could go to sidewalks. What about a deal with the neighborhood Winn-Dixie to use all those parking spaces that sit empty at night, or a sensible spot for a private sector parking garage?
And so government is on the bar beat — thank goodness and spare the azaleas.