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City fire marshal puts hold on Channelside's courtyard events until they're up to new fire safety codes

Snoop Dogg performs at a block party in January that  drew up to 700 people to Channelside Bay Plaza’s courtyard as thousands partied in the area. In March, the fire marshal banned courtyard events attracting more than 500 people.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Snoop Dogg performs at a block party in January that drew up to 700 people to Channelside Bay Plaza’s courtyard as thousands partied in the area. In March, the fire marshal banned courtyard events attracting more than 500 people.

CHANNELSIDE — First, a New Year's Eve party. Then, a Snoop Dogg concert during Super Bowl weekend drew up to 700 people to Channelside Bay Plaza's courtyard as thousands partied in the surrounding area.

Crowds like those boosted business up to 50 percent for some tenants.

Channelside managers planned to host similar events every weekend this summer.

Then, in March, came the letter from the city fire marshal: no more courtyard events attracting more than 500 people, it said.

Now, as the complex tries to evolve into a venue for live events, officials find themselves contending with the latest fire safety codes.

"You can't have Led Zeppelin there. You can't have Kid Rock or somebody like that who's going to bring in a big crowd," Tampa fire marshal Geoff Brown said.

The complex continues to host smaller weekend events in the courtyard, often with lesser known bands.

The main problem is that the courtyard doesn't have sufficient exits to handle larger crowds under the new codes, although the complex was in compliance before, Brown said.

Fire codes are statewide and updated every three years. Large venues for live shows, such as the St. Pete Times Forum and the Tampa Convention Center, are designed to morph for every event. They can more easily adjust to new codes, Brown said.

It's not so simple for Channelside. When it opened in 2001, retail stores dominated the complex. Today, it's 80 percent bars and restaurants and only about 20 percent retail.

Now, business owners look forward to courtyard events.

"To me that center stage is everything because people want live entertainment," said Matthew Pezzullo, co-owner of the movie lounge Dolce Vita. "That's the new big draw."

Channelside senior property manager Brett Low wants the adjustments for tenants to be minimal, but he wouldn't specify what that meant.

"We can't really get into the details yet," Low said.

Brown guesses it could take up to a year to update the mall's three or four main exits. Existing exits may be widened or more might be added. Channelside is submitting options to Brown for approval to determine final costs, said Stephen Michelini, a Channelside consultant.

Originally, Michelini said, "we were thinking a couple thousand, but it's like 10 times that."

Guy Revelle — who leases space for Stumps, Howl at the Moon, Splitsville and Tinatapas — will have to make some minor changes within his establishments to meet the new code. He will have to remove a few picnic tables and chairs and shorten a bar by a few feet. But he doesn't mind.

He just hopes the major courtyard events can return. They boost his business up to 35 percent.

Upstairs, where Dolce Vita sits, there are about seven emergency exits, Brown said, so no major changes are needed.

But events in the 9,500-square-foot courtyard can double the number of people who pop in for a movie, Dolce Vita co-owner Pezzullo said.

"That's why we're in business," he said. "For times like that."

But Channelside managers figured out a deal with Brown and the Tampa Port Authority for their Fourth of July celebration. Barricades will block the courtyard, leading people around the complex and to the dock for the fireworks show. A temporary adjustment.

"This is what you've got to do to become one of the big boys in the neighborhood and be one of the major venues," Brown said.

Problem solved for now.

Ileana Morales can be reached at imorales@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

City fire marshal puts hold on Channelside's courtyard events until they're up to new fire safety codes 06/18/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 18, 2009 4:30am]
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