The bars next door 

As the city explores new rules for nightclubs and bars, how goes SoHo?

In late October of 2011, a stricken Sharon Jones came before Tampa City Council, tears flowing down her face. “This is my only child. My only son. Please, I’m asking you to close this down … please shut this down.”

“This” was Club Empire, for years a site of violence both indoors and out on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City. After Jones’s son, 20-year-old Leslie Jerome Jones, Jr., was shot and killed at the controversial hip-hop club, she had plenty of company in calling for the club’s demise. There was even talk of lawsuits being prepared against the city unless something was done about the notorious establishment.

But there was and is nothing in the city’s code that allows for public officials to close down a business without due process — despite the fact that there had been prior shootings and stabbings around the facility, with police being called for service over 100 times that year.

The collective anger turned to joy a few weeks later when club owner Joel Brewer voluntarily shut down the club, after business had trickled to anemic proportions.

But the anger among Ybor club owners remained palpable, perhaps best expressed by The Dirty Shame manager Richard Boom, who asked, “How high does the stack of bullshit have to be against this specific club before you can literally say, ‘That’s enough. You’re out of business’?”

Upon some recommendations by Council members, last May City Attorney Rebecca Kert issued a series of recommendations for dealing with potential Club Empires in the future, including a ban on admitting anyone under 21 and a mandate that nightclubs hire off-duty police officers. Those ideas petrified both business owners and young patrons, and a social media campaign brought dozens of them to City Hall May 24.

Mermaid Tavern owner Lux DeVoid told the Council that the cost of just one police officer on duty “would exceed our entire payroll for the rest of the staff.”

Alan Kahana, who runs a number of establishments in Ybor including Czar, said he sells lots of Red Bulls, Coca-Colas and bottled waters to patrons between the ages of 18 and 20, and that if the city were going to prevent those under 21 from entering clubs, it should do the same thing at stadiums, the Straz Center and any other place that serves alcoholic beverages.

Nine months later, city officials and bar owners are now closer to formulating rules that will define what a nightclub is and what it would require for an owner to fall out of compliance and lose the ability to sell alcohol. But they’re not there just yet.

Officials are working with the idea of requiring clubs to acquire an annual Business Operating Permit.

At a recent GaYBOR Business Coalition meeting, president Carrie West told his members of the importance of the meetings that have been held in recent months. “This is government getting in your face,” he said.

Although most of the discussion of Business Operating Permits has focused on Ybor City, city officials are now working with restaurant and bar owners across the city on a policy. That includes the busiest street where locals and tourists are getting their drink on that’s not Seventh Avenue.

That would be the strip of clubland known as SoHo. In recent years South Howard Avenue has been a crush of humanity on weekend nights, inviting comparisons to Ybor that are not meant as a compliment.

Councilwoman Mary Mulhern describes the area as “like Gasparilla every weekend,” referring to the thousands of mostly 20-somethings who flock to establishments like MacDinton’s, World of Beer, SoHo Tavern, and the Dubliner. Councilman Mike Suarez refers to the Thursday through Saturday night scene as “overwhelming” in what had traditionally been considered a mixed-use community, and which some neighborhood activists complain has become anything but.

Local residents say the two biggest problems in the area are parking and noise — particularly amplified noise. The latter is the issue that neighbors complain about most frequently to Tampa police, although not in great numbers.

Del Acosta is Tampa’s former historic preservation manager and a Hyde Park neighborhood activist. He calls weekends in SoHo a “bad scene” and attributes part of the problem to a City Council that gets intimidated too easily by city land use attorneys into accepting wet zoning applications, now called special use permits. “I just don’t understand that,” he complains. If land use laws don’t provide enough flexibility, he says, “maybe the Council should adopt a policy of saying there should be no more bars. It’s just not a healthy environment.”

One very real reason the Council doesn’t want to disobey its staff or attorney recommendations is the threat of being sued and having to make a hefty payout, which is exactly what happened last year, going back to a development proposed in 2003. That’s when the city’s Architectural Review Commission rejected a proposal by Citivest Construction Corp for a high-rise project at the corner of Bayshore and DeSoto Avenue.

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