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Tampa okays booze on the Riverwalk, with a few limitations

Vendors will soon be allowed to sell alcoholic beverages along the Riverwalk in Tampa. Though some welcome the move, others are concerned it could could lead to problems.
Published Nov. 7, 2014

TAMPA — Within weeks, a stroll on Tampa's Riverwalk should come with the chance to buy a cold beer or a cocktail to go.

That's because a City Council majority voted Thursday to allow open containers of beer, wine or liquor on the Riverwalk to enhance the appeal of downtown Tampa's waterfront.

"It does exactly what we've been trying to do in this community for the last 3 1/2 years, and that is build a downtown that's exciting and that people want to be a part of," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said afterward.

The approval came after some speakers worried about alcohol falling into the hands of kids or homeless people, or warned that it could lead to more drunken driving. But representatives of downtown businesses and cultural attractions successfully argued it would draw more people to the riverfront and allow them to enjoy it more.

Still, there will be limits.

First, no one can bring their own alcohol. Instead, visitors will have to buy their drinks from one of eight restaurants, hotels or city facilities along the Riverwalk licensed to sell alcohol. And those drinks will have to be served in plastic cups with the Riverwalk logo.

So the change probably won't take effect for a few weeks. Buckhorn must sign the ordinance. Then, officials want to hold another meeting with the vendors. Then, they must order the cups.

Second, when the program does start, no one will be allowed to:

• Carry more than two drinks at a time.

• Have drinks on the Riverwalk before 11 a.m. or after 1 a.m.

• Take a drink from the Riverwalk into a city park (unless there was a permitted special event with alcohol there).

The proposal passed 4-2, with Charlie Miranda and Frank Reddick voting no. Mary Mulhern was absent. Most council members expected the change would build on the city's work to make downtown come alive as a destination for the arts, food and fun.

"To me, it is what a growing and vibrant city does," council member Harry Cohen said. "It embraces new concepts, new ways of enjoying what we have."

The vote came with endorsements from representatives of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, Friends of the Riverwalk, the Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina and Tampa Heights neighborhood association.

"It's been thoughtful, it's been smart," said Mise en Place restaurant owner Maryann Ferenc, whose Sono Café is at the Tampa Museum of Art. "I truly believe it's going to work, and it's going to benefit us with increased volume in our city doing things the way we want them to be done."

But skeptics warned of creating a "mini-Gasparilla" with drunken college students running amok and drivers under the influence staggering to their cars.

"We need to proceed cautiously here," said Ellen Snelling of the Tampa Alcohol Coalition. She asked who would make sure that buyers would not give drinks to underaged friends and worried that used cups would fall into the wrong hands.

"You have your homeless, you're going to have kids coming in picking those cups out of the garbage," former City Council member Joseph Caetano said. He recommended instead tracking who can drink legally by issuing wristbands with the date on them.

Advocates said the change is not the same as wet-zoning a bar or nightclub. With a wet-zoning, the city doesn't have the legal authority to go back later and change the conditions of the zoning if there are problems.

With the Riverwalk, it can. That's because the city would create a "specialty center," a designation authorized by the Legislature, where there would be an exemption to the city's general ban on drinking in public.

If it doesn't work out, supporters say, the city could revisit the decision later, make changes or even repeal it.

"If we make a mistake," Cohen said, "we can always go back and fix it."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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