The push to allow public consumption of alcohol at downtown New Port Richey's special events began a dozen years ago as a fundraising idea for a non-profit agency. Though defeated then by a voter referendum, the City Council eventually acquiesced to renewed pleas and allowed charities to sell beer and wine at a single location. Later, it expanded the alcohol rules to permit sale and consumption at multiple sites, including Sims Park and the city library.
But the idea of this tactic benefiting nonprofit groups is now being challenged by tavern owners who complain of being at a competitive disadvantage. This week, they asked the city to consider relaxing enforcement of the open-container ordinance during special events. That would allow tavern patrons to take their drinks off premises without fear of citation and would allow the business owners to compete with the nearby beer tents.
To honor that pitch, the council would need to amend its ordinance allowing nonprofits to sell alcohol at special events by removing the clause requiring sale and consumption to be contained in a specific, secured area.
On its surface, the tavern owners are seeking a reasonable allowance to help them through tough financial times. But we are concerned about the city's continued track of ignoring the result of the citizen-driven referendum 11 years ago in which 69 percent of the turnout rejected selling and consuming alcohol in Sims Park. Since then, the city has whittled away at that sentiment to permit expanded alcohol sales without seeking input at the polls.
The evolving rationale also is problematic. Initially, the stated intent was to boost fundraising to help charities wean themselves from government assistance while simultaneously making downtown events more attractive to potential sponsors and patrons. Now, the council — which is considering curtailing subsidies for the special events — is being told the charities have an unfair advantage over the established businesses.
That is potentially duplicitous. How can the council end financial help for the nonprofits putting on special events and then slice their income further by changing the groups' exclusive ability to provide outdoor alcohol sales?
Frankly, would special event promoters even welcome patrons who have just purchased their refreshments at another locale? Would the downtown bar owners allow the public to enter carrying and consuming alcoholic drinks they've bought somewhere else?
The city, struggling business owners and nonprofits may yet reach an amicable solution, but there are legitimate questions that must be addressed regarding liability, fairness and respect toward voters' intent before the next round is served.