1. Business

Iconic St. Petersburg gay venue Georgie's Alibi set to close this month

ST. PETERSBURG — Tom Dwyer and Rick Miller used to drop their luggage on Dwyer's parents' porch, say, "See you for dinner," and head right to Georgie's Alibi for cocktail hour.

They'd weave through a crowd to reach the bar and dream about starting a life in St. Petersburg.

"It was nice to have a place where you could call home, where you felt comfortable when gayness wasn't so accepted," Miller said. "We kept pushing for acceptance and marriage. … But it comes with a price."

That price: The bar on Third Avenue N has met the same fate as many shuttered gay bars across the country, spreading a spirit of acceptance that then diminished its own role in the community.

After 15 years, Georgie's Alibi will close for good Sept. 19.

"We've been huge supporters of equality in many ways, and that same equality and acceptance has played a role in our demise," said owner Ron Gofrank. "But while it's sad that the Alibi is closing, we certainly embrace that progress. And if that's the cost of people having their equal rights, it's a small price to pay."

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, people are no longer a niche customer base without options. They have moved from the margins to Central Avenue.

"You can go any place that I've been here and feel welcome," said Eric Skains, executive director of St. Pete Pride. "We've joked numerous times with friends that we see more gay people at the bars downtown than at traditional gay bars."

The same issue has felled gay bars from San Francisco to London, prompting headlines like "The Vanishing Terrain of Gay America" and "The Lost Gay Bars of San Francisco."

"Back in the day, gay people pretty much had to go to their own place to feel safe," said bar manager Frank Costelli, 36. "It's not necessary anymore. I've dated men and gone downtown to the bars and have been able to kiss my boyfriend or hold his hand in public, and nobody even blinks anymore."

Costelli said he has seen a steady decline in business in the last decade, fueled by dating sites and growing inclusion.

When Dwyer, 63, and Miller, 60, heard the news, they came right to the Alibi for vodka cocktails, poured by a bartender they've known since their years in Long Island, N.Y.

"I'm almost teary-eyed," Dwyer said. "For this community, this is an end of an era."

A number of patrons compared the bar to Cheers, a popular bar in Boston.

"I can't imagine any of the bartenders not knowing what I drink," said Anthony Citrola, 37, a 12-year regular. "I can walk in and my Bud Light is on the bar."

As acceptance has grown, he said, younger people have begun going to downtown bars, rather than relying on gay bars. It's an older, more loyal crowd that will have to find a new home base, he said.

"I'm not sure what's going to happen now," said Al Harlan, 68, a longtime regular who met most of his friends at the bar. He teared up as he spoke. "I'm obviously very sorry to see it go."

The Alibi has sustained six-figure losses for several years, Gofrank said, though it continued to employ nearly 50 people, several of whom had worked there for more than a decade.

"It degraded the experience both for the customers and for us because no longer were the crowds of the magnitude that we both enjoyed," said Gofrank, of Fort Lauderdale.

The bar, with its beloved Long Island iced teas, was listed among the country's top 200 gay bars by Out Magazine in 2013.

When it opened in 2000, it was among the first gay bars to feature open windows and an outdoor patio in Tampa Bay, unlike some dives with no windows in seedy neighborhoods.

"Gay bars up until the Alibi were basically on a dirt road — no lights, no shine," said Bob Barnum, who brokered the sale for Gofrank.

Gofrank said he and a few other cofounders "didn't feel that the gay community needed to be hidden."

While Georgie's gained popularity, Gofrank and his employees cut an increasingly wide swath in the community. The area around the bar served as a gathering spot and kickoff for the annual St. Pete Pride parade, where the floats queued and the first beads were tossed each year. The bar donated to groups such as the Historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association and police benevolent organizations. Georgie's provided the drinks for Equality Florida's annual gala, Barnum said.

Gofrank and his managers held forums, organized fundraisers and backed progressive city council members who would best serve their customers.

Many newer establishments in the Grand Central District and downtown owe some success to Georgie's, said Brian Longstreth of Your Neighborhood Realty Inc., a founder of St. Pete Pride.

"It really made people feel more comfortable," he said. Georgie's, he said, "was kind of a stamp of approval that the Grand Central District and those surrounding neighborhoods were something worth investing in."

Last year, another developer bought land south of the bar, Barnum said, with plans to build a 53-unit affordable housing complex. Gofrank realized that space for Georgie's was receding, and put the St. Pete institution on the market.

A developer agreed to buy the Alibi property at 3100 Third Ave. N, Barnum said. He said Gofrank received close to the $895,000 listing price. The developer plans to build apartments with tax credits, he said.

In shuttering this year, Georgie's joins Ybor City's popular video rental and gay pride store MC Film Fest, which closed in April, though its owners are seeking a new location.

"It feels like an actual member of my family is slowly passing away," Graham said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report.