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City: Venue safe despite big fight

It started, police believe, as a fight between two 13-year-old girls.

"Then here comes their brother or their cousin to protect their little relative," said St. Petersburg police Lt. Donnie Williams.

The fight at BayWalk quickly escalated and spread throughout the courtyard of the downtown shopping and entertainment center. Within minutes, 41 police officers swarmed the scene and arrested 14 people.

On Monday, three days after the brawl, city and BayWalk officials sought to reassure residents that it was still safe to watch a movie or grab an ice cream cone at the complex. At a news conference outside the Muvico theatre, they also pledged to study the problems associated with an increased youth presence in downtown St. Petersburg.

"This is not just a BayWalk problem," said Craig Sher, president and CEO of the Sembler Group, which owns BayWalk. "This is a downtown problem. It involves many, many factions of downtown and everyone needs to be involved."

Mayor Rick Baker said episodes such as Friday night's melee are an outgrowth of the city's recent success in attracting people to downtown. "When you have a city with a vibrant nightlife, you're going to have incidents that occur," he said. "We know that."

The fight broke out about 10:30 p.m. Friday. Police are still unsure of the exact cause.

Seven adults and seven juveniles were arrested. Ten were charged with disorderly conduct, and the rest were charged with simple battery and disorderly intoxication. One person was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer.

Everyone arrested was between the ages of 13 and 24 and black. Lt. Williams said that while there was a mix of races at BayWalk that evening, the only people fighting when police arrived were black.

BayWalk was the target of race-based demonstrations last fall when members of the Uhurus protested the arrest of three young black men. The demonstrations were halted after BayWalk officials agreed to loosen the code of conduct, which prohibited baggy pants and gatherings of juveniles in groups of larger than four.

City Council member Earnest Williams, who is black, said he doesn't think race played a part in Friday night's incident.

"I hate to see it occur," he said. "But I don't have any problem arresting black folks if they are committing a crime."

Several of the young men arrested said they were innocent bystanders caught in a bad situation. For five of the seven adults, it was the first time they had been arrested in Florida. Information was not available for the juveniles.

Lequerio Nesbitt, 18, a defensive back for the Boca Ciega High School football team, said he and three of his friends were trying to leave BayWalk when somebody punched him.

"The police just arrested me," said Nesbitt, who has no criminal record. "I think they were just trying to break it up, but I didn't hit anyone."

Laura Bridges, 38, said her two sons were trying to prevent a fight when police arrested them. Her 18-year-old son, Anthony, was headed for their car when a group of men followed them, she said.

A police officer used pepper spray to subdue her son, she said. He tried to back away, when police say he grabbed an officer's arm and tried to twist it. He told his mother, in tears, that he never grabbed the officer's arm.

She said the police overreacted. "My son says he will never go back to BayWalk again," Bridges said.

Sher said he was planning to beef up security this Friday night and will review the complex's rules. Minors aren't allowed on BayWalk's upper tier, where restaurants and bars are located, after 9 p.m. without supervision. No one is allowed to gather in the complex's courtyard after 11 p.m.

But Sher said he doesn't plan to institute any rules banning kids from the complex.

"We're not about that," he said. "We're for everybody. We're a family place, but we're also a place for singles and for teens."

Despite attracting more than 4-million visitors per year, average monthly calls for police service at the complex are low, Sher said. Lt. Williams said he can recall only eight arrests in the past four months, most for trespassing, disorderly conduct or petty theft.

"But it's the bad stuff that gets all the attention," Sher said.

Tampa's Ybor City has long been dogged with a similar reputation for late-night fisticuffs.

To repair Ybor's image, the Tampa City Council passed a curfew last year that banned anyone younger than 18 from the Ybor entertainment district between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. Businesses have to post notices of the curfew, which went into effect in December.

So far, the curfew seems to have worked, said Ken Hayes, a regional manager for GBX Shoes, which overlooks Seventh Avenue, Ybor's main drag.

Less dramatic tactics are deployed at other Hillsborough County nightspots, including the Regency 20 AMC Theatres in Brandon, long a gathering spot for local teens. "You just put a couple more deputies there," said Hillsborough sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

In St. Petersburg, city officials and local activists announced they'll hold several community forums to discuss alternatives to BayWalk for the city's youth. They will be organized by the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership and the Boys and Girls Club.

City Council members have been receiving complaints about teens hanging out at BayWalk for almost two years. Last August, they began discussing creating a recreational complex for youth.

On Monday, they reaffirmed their commitment to the concept but said kids must come up with the ideas. "If the city designs it, it's not going to be cool," said council member Bill Foster.

Several council members also denounced parents who drop off their children, some as young as 8, at BayWalk and leave them there unsupervised for many hours.

"It is not the responsibility of the city of St. Petersburg to babysit your kids after 11 p.m.," said council member Virginia Littrell, whose council district includes BayWalk.

Times writers David Karp, Brady Dennis and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.