ST. PETERSBURG — Backup is finally on the way for the police officers who patrol the city's booming downtown bar district.
A new association of bar merchants said that in the coming weeks they'll start hiring additional off-duty officers to help keep the city's thriving party corridor safe.
Members of the Downtown St. Pete Nightlife Association Inc. say the success of the city's bar hub is dependent on its reputation as a safe place to have a good time. The last thing they want is for downtown St. Petersburg to turn into Ybor City — another bar-soaked destination known for its raucous, alcohol-fueled crowds.
David Marshlack, co-owner of the Bishop Tavern, Bishop Lounge and other downtown venues, should know. He used to own bars in Ybor City.
"Ybor was a great place until it got out of control," he said. "When it got out of control, people got too scared to go down there.
"We want to protect people down here. We want to keep it a safe and happy place."
That's exactly the kind of help St. Petersburg officials have said they need to keep downtown safe since the City Council voted in May 2010 to push bar hours back from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m.
The extra hour has made a big difference for downtown businesses, helping transform downtown St. Petersburg into a popular night spot. But more bars and later hours have resulted in much bigger crowds — crowds that require more officers to handle.
A St. Petersburg Times analysis of police data showed that in the first eight months of the later bar hours, the number of arrests made downtown jumped 151 percent and weekend calls for service there went up 70 percent.
The city already has a squad of officers dedicated to patrolling downtown's bars on Friday and Saturday nights and uses a federal grant to pay for extra officers. But to handle the bigger crowds, the Police Department had to start holding back a shift of officers that would have normally clocked out. Instead of going home, they go downtown.
That has led the city to spend far more on police overtime than it originally anticipated. Last week police officials told the City Council that the new bar hours have resulted in 300 hours of police overtime a month spent on downtown alone.
Maj. Sharon "DeDe" Carron, whose patrol district includes downtown, said her officers reported that April 1 — the monthly First Friday celebration, combined with the Rays' Tropicana Field opener — was the busiest night they've ever seen.
Carron said the formula for a safe downtown is simple: "The more officers we have down there, the less problems there are."
Some bars have banded together to hire two off-duty officers to help out the city, police Chief Chuck Harmon told the council last week, but the department wants them to hire more.
Now the Downtown St. Pete Nightlife Association Inc. is poised do that. The current members are Bishop Tavern, Bishop Lounge, Central Avenue Oyster Bar, Crowley's Downtown, Detroit Liquors, Durty Nelly's Irish Pub, the Mandarin Hide, Pelican Pub, Push Ultra Lounge, Vintage Ultra Lounge, the Garden, and the Lobby.
Their plan is to start with two to three extra officers on weekends and hire more as are needed, according to association president Brendan McDowell, whose company InfinaSol provides marketing and online services to several of the bars.
The association wants to bring in even more downtown bars and businesses. They're also working on a fee schedule based on the size of bars and where the extra officers should be placed.
"The bars have great intentions, they want to do the right thing," McDowell said. "The last thing that anyone wants to happen is for it to turn into a Ybor type of thing. We want to keep it safe."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.