Restaurant and bar patrons in Tampa can drink an hour longer than in St. Petersburg, where those businesses have to stop selling alcohol at 2 a.m. Some St. Petersburg business owners say that is a competitive disadvantage that should end now. They want the City Council to extend alcohol sales in the city to 3 a.m. The later hour could be a boon to business, but it also could mean an extension of problems for people living near rowdy neighborhood bars or package stores. City officials have quality-of-life issues to consider on both sides of this debate.
In Tampa, package stores and convenience stores, as well as restaurants and bars, can sell alcohol until 3 a.m. Some other Florida cities also have a 3 a.m. cutoff, which leaves plenty of time for people to go out after a late ball game, concert or theater performance.
But in St. Petersburg, bars and restaurants must stop serving drinks at 2 a.m. and stores that sell package alcohol must stop at midnight. In 2006 the City Council attempted to extend package sales to 2 a.m., but the effort evaporated after then-Mayor Rick Baker threatened to veto it. Extending restaurant and bar hours to 3 a.m. was suggested as far back as 1998, when Major League Baseball came to St. Petersburg
The recession has magnified the frustrations of bar and restaurant owners who watch their customers leave early to go to Tampa for an extra hour of party time. Tampa also is a lure for Pinellas' international tourists, who often come from places where nightclubs and restaurants stay open all night. It is time, business owners say, for St. Petersburg to act like a major league city and stop rolling up the sidewalks at 2 a.m.
Two committees of the City Council will discuss the idea of extending alcohol sales until 3 a.m. when they meet in a joint session Feb. 25. Council member Jim Kennedy, who asked for the discussion, said he wanted the committees to evaluate the idea for safety and economics.
Critics contend that allowing alcohol to be sold later will lead to more consumption and more drunken driving, but Kennedy suggests that it could improve safety because people could get the alcohol they want closer to home "and not be out wandering around at night." Council members need good information from law enforcement about the safety question.
There is a strong economic argument for extending the hours. Another hour of sales would push up profits for businesses struggling in this economy, and tax revenue from alcohol sales also would go up. Pinellas tourists might be more inclined to stay in the county for other entertainment options, too, rather than being lured across the bay.
However, extending sales by an hour could add to the frustrations of residents plagued by noise or trespassers from neighborhood bars and package stores. The City Council should explore council member Karl Nurse's idea to extend hours only in areas where there is already a concentration of businesses selling alcohol — Central Avenue and Beach Drive, for example, where restaurants and bars have proliferated and nearby residents are acclimated to that environment. The down side to the district approach is that different hours for different areas could confuse the public and create enforcement headaches.
There are quality-of-life issues on both sides of this debate for council members to weigh carefully, but it will be difficult for St. Petersburg to build its reputation as a destination city full of life after dark if people think the real fun is somewhere else.