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Brawl a black eye for BayWalk

What began as a lovely evening at BayWalk turned into a chaotic melee Friday as dozens of teens and adults got into a brawl at the downtown retail and entertainment complex.

The fighting appeared to start about 10:30 p.m. with a group of teens near the Muvico theatre, and then swelled to dozens of people pushing and throwing punches in the center of the Mediterranean-style courtyard, business owners said.

As the complex filled with shouts, grunts and screams, more than 60 police officers swarmed the area, shutting down Second Avenue N and taking people into custody.

Some startled business owners locked their doors, waiting in back until the fighting stopped.

"We were scared," said shop clerk, 21-year-old Alexa Baracani. "It was pretty intense."

Police quickly broke up the fight and cleared teens from the courtyard about 11 p.m., under BayWalk's curfew. But sporadic fights continued on nearby streets until after midnight, police said.

No one was seriously injured, police said.

Police arrested seven adults and seven juveniles on charges ranging from battery on a law enforcement officer to disorderly conduct.

"It was not the typical Friday night at BayWalk," police spokesman Bill Doniel said.

People who came to BayWalk for a late movie or Ben & Jerry's ice cream saw police searching for suspects in bushes and officers getting assaulted while trying to break up fights. Police helicopters hovered above as officers stood sentry on surrounding street corners.

"I was spooked," said Palm Harbor resident Carolyn Carter, who noticed the commotion when she walked out of a downtown hotel about 11 p.m. "I was a little nervous to go out."

Doniel said an unusually large number of teens gathered at BayWalk on Friday, possibly drawn to the area by the city's monthly "Get Down Town" event, which brings live music to nearby Central Avenue the first Friday of every month.

The fighting appeared to start with teens, then some of their relatives got involved, Doniel said. He characterized the fights as "personal beefs," and said they appeared to involve a wide array of people _ black and white, young and old.

"It was not one particular thing," he said.

BayWalk spokeswoman Lisa Brock said a number of young women were involved in the fights, and police said the participants were as young as 13.

Business owners say they are fed up with the fighting and what they described as sporadic chaos at BayWalk on the weekends. At least one business, Jess Jewelers, has started closing at 9 p.m. _ rather than 11 p.m. _ because of fighting.

"After 9 p.m. on a Friday, it's lunacy here," said Ray Potesta, general manager of the jewelry store. "This is a black eye on the entire community. As a community, we need to step up to the plate and assume more responsibility for the behavior of our citizenry and do something to correct it."

City Council members say they continue to receive complaints about BayWalk _ and the downtown area in general _ as the city thrives.

Residents in downtown condominiums are complaining of teenagers doing drugs and having sex in the waterfront parks, said City Council member Virginia Littrell.

Police are concerned about unruly people drinking and fighting during the monthly "Get Down Town" event. And out-of-town visitors often complain about aggressive panhandlers near BayWalk.

"We need to figure out what's going on and fix it," Littrell said. "We've got to make downtown a wholesome family environment, where it's safe and comfortable and everyone is having fun."

Many have blamed the problems on teenagers. Parents drop them off at BayWalk by the carload on weekends, using the complex as a cheap babysitter, business owners say.

Brock said parents leave children as young as 8, 9 and 10 years old at the complex.

"This is a problem," Brock said. "Children that age need supervision."

BayWalk has become a victim of its success, Brock said, fulfilling its early promise of becoming the city's unofficial town center.

Everyone _ children, teens and adults _ is welcome, as long as they act lawfully, Brock said.

"Safety and security are our absolute and primary concern," she said. "There are definitely going to be some meetings on Monday morning to look at this."

Last year was a rough one for BayWalk. Protesters have crowded the sidewalks for months, prompting complaints from business owners who say they scare off customers.

Antiwar activists have protested there. For weeks they were joined by the Uhurus, an activist group protesting the arrests of three black men at BayWalk last fall. The city has worked hard to reinvigorate its downtown, Potesta said, and must do something to better balance the needs of business owners, residents, teenagers and patrons.

"People come downtown, and it's like beggar, beggar, beggar, then riot," Potesta said. "They're like, "What next?' "

Littrell's council district includes BayWalk. She said she thinks a teen attraction would help. She and other city leaders are discussing some type of recreational complex for teens.

She and business owners agree: If something doesn't change, people may start spending their time, and money, elsewhere.

"We're not going to give up hope, but this is very frustrating," Potesta said. "If something doesn't happen, the only thing here on Friday nights is going to be the hoodlums."

Jamie Thompson can be reached at (727) 893-8455 or jthompsonsptimes.com.

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