Carlton: Beer-town Tampa now ready for cocktails on the river

Being able to enjoy an alcoholic beverage in designated outdoor areas could be an inviting option for visitors.
Being able to enjoy an alcoholic beverage in designated outdoor areas could be an inviting option for visitors.
Published Nov. 1, 2014

Scenario No. 1: Imagine downtown Tampa, former gritty port town with a perpetual chip on its shoulder, transformed into a different sort of city — one cool enough that residents, out-of-towners, diners, bar patrons and concertgoers could stroll along its riverfront, sipping beer, wine and cocktails.

Or, Scenario No. 2: Imagine Tampa's Riverwalk, a wide path that runs between restaurants, parks and hotels from one end of downtown to the other, transformed by drunken hordes of beer-swilling revelers — and the city is left to deal with the ensuing alcohol-related headaches. (Oh, wait — that's Gasparilla.)

Me, I pick No. 1. Because this is a city ready for it.

The Tampa City Council is considering an ordinance to allow those so inclined to drink along its opened-up, vastly transformed and, yes, I'll say it, pretty Hillsborough River downtown.

The proposal would not be a free-for-all pass to a perpetual waterside bachelor party, though certainly it will lend itself to some partying. It turns out to be a careful ordinance that would add an interesting perk to downtown — with some sensible safeguards built in.

Such as: You could imbibe only in the designated Riverwalk area, not on downtown streets or public parks. And no BYOB — the purchase of, say, a chilled lemon drop martini, frosty Bud Light or pinot grigio must be made from select hotels, restaurants, cafes and the convention center on the Riverwalk. And your drink must be drunk from an official, easily identifiable cup with a Riverwalk logo on it.

Which would blend in nicely with what's already building on the nearly finished meandering path of walkable, runnable, bikeable concrete along the Hillsborough River.

Like the Riverwalk's just-announced free Wi-Fi and downtown's upcoming bike-share program, this would be a pleasant amenity for visitors and residents. The option of carrying your drink from dinner at the Columbia Cafe on a pleasant walk back to your room at the Marriott Waterside — or for a stroll along the Riverwalk to see its arty lighted bridges — sounds like a nice city perk to me.

Still, three of seven City Council members initially voted no, voicing legitimate concerns about drunks and liability. (The most descriptive quote from a politician in recent memory has to be council member Frank Reddick predicting, "There are going to be some bowlegged people walking down the Riverwalk.")

But bars and restaurants already serve alcohol along the Riverwalk. They know how to do this. And alcohol wouldn't be allowed in the family-friendly parks along the way, unless there happened to be an already-permitted event there.

Again, this is something the city already knows how to handle. And contained areas allowing alcohol like the one proposed here have worked elsewhere.

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Council members can take comfort in police Chief Jane Castor saying she is "very comfortable" enforcing this ordinance. And good, because steady police vigilance will be necessary to set the appropriate tone. And council members would be free to tweak or repeal it.

Here's the thing: Tampa is not just drunken pirates and keg parties. Downtown is ready. When the City Council considers this again Thursday, here's hoping we're toasting another step for a city growing up.