Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Opinion

St. Petersburg's image at stake in wake of nightclub shooting

Let's talk about downtown St. Petersburg.

Since 2005, the Sunshine City has seen a burst of development and creativity — with new condominiums dotting the skyline as well as new shops and restaurants along Beach Drive — that have breathed new life into a region that was once plagued by a large homeless population.

To many residents, downtown represents the commercial and historical core of the city.

There are 68 restaurants, more than 40 bars and 42 attractions in the downtown district, which encompasses an area between Fifth avenues north and south, and east of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

On any given night, the sidewalks along downtown's main corridors are busy with patrons to these establishments, which are key economic drivers for the city.

It is no wonder that the recent shooting incident at Scene Premium Night Club has drawn concern from city officials, residents and business owners.

There's too much at stake — especially the city's image.

"Things are very fluid downtown, and we've been very lucky in the last 10 years," said Marilyn Olsen, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association.

While there is concern about the incident, few are pointing to the extended bar hours as the problem.

"We did see an increase when the issue of extended hours first came up," said Mike Puetz, public information officer for the St. Petersburg Police Department. But that's no longer the case, he said — the real problem lies with staffing at the club.

"We have to be in a preventative type mode, not just with that club but others as well," he said.

"Obviously a shooting is serious, and it always concerns us," said Olsen. "It doesn't take much to change a very positive image of downtown to one that is very concerning. We (DNA) didn't oppose the extended hours of the bars because we wanted to support the local businesses."

A nearby bar manager doesn't see the shooting as a major cause of concern.

"I think it's isolated; it has more to do with the crowd," said Joe Moledo, VIP manager at Vintage Ultra Lounge at 16 Second St. N. "That Tuesday night crowd (at Scene) comes from everywhere — USF St. Pete, Tampa, Clearwater and south St. Pete."

While the incident is alarming, it's not unusual, considering the circumstances.

"I don't care what city you go to, when you put large crowds and alcohol together, these kinds of things are going to happen," said Puetz.

Olsen said she was pleased with the St. Petersburg Police Department's quick response.

"We want to make the city a safe place to visit. We're very much working to support the city to come up with an organized way to prevent this sort of activity."

Many agree that the key to prevent recurrences of Tuesday's incident lies in security.

"I call it preventive maintenance," said Moledo. "Our security officers are trained to look for problems before they happen."

Police estimate that Tuesday's crowd was between 800 and 1,000 patrons. On a school night.

Also, Tuesday's shooting didn't deter patrons from flocking to the popular downtown spot. According to Puetz, there were about 1,000 patrons there Wednesday, less than 24 hours later.

So in addition to being a thriving arts community, earning a spot in AmericanStyle magazine's top 25 U.S. arts destinations for midsize cities two years in a row, the city also draws large late-night crowds to several bars and clubs.

We want a thriving, livable downtown. And while a bustling nightlife is a part of the equation, city officials, business owners and community leaders must work together to ensure that a successful downtown is also a safe place.

Puetz said it best: "It doesn't take very much for very isolated incidents to cause an area to get a bad reputation. We desperately want to avoid that."

Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8874.

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