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Sanity reigns over a highly emotional issue

The brouhaha over brew sales at Sims Park is on a reprieve. In a reasonable compromise suggested by Council member Rob Marlowe, the New Port Richey City Council voted 4-1 this week to allow beer and wine sales at six downtown events over the next 12 months.

It is a level-headed answer to an emotional debate over whether Sims Park, home to both the city amphitheater and the large community-built children's playground, should be the site of beer and wine consumption during special events.

Before this week, groups could apply for special permits to sell beer and wine at the Cavalaire Square pocket park, but consumption was limited to south of Main Street. It was a confusing procedure that allowed the public to buy an alcoholic beverage at a downtown event, but not be able to consume it during concerts inside Sims Park.

Voters rejected making alcohol available in the park eight years ago, but the idea resurfaced over the summer as Mayor Scott McPherson researched ways to increase downtown activity while assisting nonprofit groups that had long relied on city subsidies to help make ends meet. The council approved the first reading of the proposed ordinance 3-2 earlier this month. It drew heavy criticism, including from this newspaper, because it failed to honor the referendum results.

On Tuesday, McPherson offered a complicated compromise that would have allowed opponents additional time to recall the ordinance via another referendum if the measure was allowed to go into effect. (A recall suspends the ordinance until the scheduled referendum.) The mayor wisely declined to pursue his proposal after Marlowe suggested the more simplistic solution of sunsetting the new law in 12 months.

In effect, it is a one-year trial period that, on the surface, appeased advocates and opponents. Non-profits have six opportunities over the next 12 months to show that alcohol sales and presumed corporate sponsorships will boost their bottom lines and allow the charities to continue or to expand their public service. It also provides an opportunity to demonstrate to opponents whether the New Port Richey area is sophisticated enough to imbibe responsibly on public land without a corresponding spike in drunken driving or alcohol-related social ills.

The desire to maximize the potential of Sims Park is understandable. It is a riverfront treasure providing a large green space downtown that doubles as a community entertainment venue. Both major parties' vice-presidential nominees campaigned there prior to the November election and past amphitheater concerts have included local, regional and national recording artists. Still, some downtown events have lost potential corporate sponsors because they did not provide beer or wine sales.

We don't believe allowing alcohol to be sold and consumed in Sims Park during bimonthly special events will kill its family-friendly ambiance. But we also don't believe the sentiment voters expressed in 2000 can be disregarded.

Requiring a public vote by the council next year to extend the ordinance is appropriate. It gives everyone involved 12 months to determine if last call should be obligatory or optional.

Sanity reigns over a highly emotional issue 11/22/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 24, 2008 5:24pm]
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