Last call for late-night alcohol in St. Petersburg bars

St. Pete's City Council prepares to vote on extending bar hours till 3 a.m.

It's 2 in the morning on a clear Friday night. Tampa's bartenders are slinging drinks and its clubs are still pumping music. But in St. Petersburg, the party is already over. Around 1:30 a.m., bartenders in downtown St. Pete are shouting, "Last call!" and cashing out bar tabs.

The move to extend St. Petersburg's legal alcohol sales from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. has been an uphill battle for its proponents.

Dave Mamber, owner of Dave's Aqua Lounge on Gandy Boulevard, says he lost over 40 percent of his revenue when the area was annexed into the city in 2003.

"I'm probably the best bar in the whole world to see the migration to Tampa every night," Mamber said. "Why not keep everybody closer to home?"

Mamber is leading the charge to keep St. Petersburg's bar tabs going until 3 o'clock and compete with Tampa. The biggest obstacle facing the initiative is St. Petersburg City Council. Mayor Bill Foster has kept mostly quiet on the subject. But Mamber says he believes Foster knows what is best for the community.

"Mayor Foster is a man that likes to play his cards pretty close to his chest, but I think [he] is looking at it as a benefit for the county and a benefit for the people that live in the county," Mamber said at a recent council meeting on the issue.

In February, the Council voted unanimously to consider the change. Last week members met to hear the city attorney's draft of new rules governing how long bars can legally operate. For those in the service industry, extending an extra hour has the potential to seriously boost revenue.

Alli Stilwell, 22, works as a bartender in downtown St. Petersburg. "Keeping bars open an extra hour would make it so that we all make more money, everyone stays out a little longer and that would bring up profits around town. When everyone will makes more money, then you make more money and spend more money," Stilwell said.

In the current economic recession, of course, bar owners are looking for any means to bring in more business.

"I think it would be good," said Jay Mastry, owner of Mastry's on Central Avenue. "Rather than losing all that business that goes over to Tampa, I'd just as soon have it stay here. I think it would benefit all of us."

His bar has a notoriously dedicated crowd of regulars, but Mastry says the extra hour couldn't hurt.

But is there enough business to keep bars busy until the wee hours of the morning? Catcher South, 29, bartends at Crowley's in St.Petersburg. He isn't certain there is.

"It's a good thing if you can get people to come out, but people aren't coming out right now. You've got your special events like First Friday that get people to come out, but to actually get people out on a regular basis is different," South said.

The University of South Florida St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg College both have campuses downtown and Eckerd College is only a few minutes drive away. The influx of college students has helped enliven the once sedate St. Petersburg.

"This isn't the sleepy little 'burg I grew up in, it's not," says Mamber. "It is a city that has three shifts and a lot of shifts don't get off until 1 or 2,"

The past five years have ushered in new venues like Push Ultra Lounge, Vintage, Durty Nelly's and Paddy Burke's alongside downtown favorites like the Emerald, Mastry's and the Garden. All hope to snag the ever-increasing college-aged and 20something population downtown.

"No matter how bad the economy is, no matter how bad everything is, everyone is going to continue to drink. It's fun, it's in sport and this is a college city and it's what we pride ourselves in," Stilwell said.

But if St. Petersburg's downtown is seeing an increase in the 20something demographic, it also houses numerous families and senior citizens within its confines. St. Petersburg resident Maurice Kurtz recalls driving from Cape Canaveral to Cocoa Beach to party an extra hour when he was younger. But Kurtz doesn't believe an extra hour will accomplish much.

"The people are gonna be out getting crazy and they are going to find a way to do it no matter what. In my mind, if you are worried about people driving, then you would have an hour less every night of people driving around after hours, after the bars close, if you close at 2," Kurtz said.

Standing outside Paciugo's Gelato on Beach Drive, St. Petersburg resident Linda Osmundson voiced mixed feelings.

"I suppose that for bar owners and business owners, it will bring people out for a little longer. I guess we are becoming more of an urban city than we were, but again I think people that want to drink are going to drink anyways and I don't think regulating the hours really matters very much," Osmundson said.

Last week, Dave Mamber sat in the front row as City Council members listened to the possible new rules for alcohol sales. While the later hours could bode well for business, a police officer at the meeting suggested the change might have adverse consequences for law enforcement.

Councilman Herbert Polson asked how the time change would affect St. Petersburg's police department.

"It could have an effect on officers that work evening shift hours and the calls that would be created by the extension of the alcohol time. You would be seeing a shift in calls to service and you may see them go in the wrong direction based on officers there," Assistant Police Chief Luke Williams said at the meeting.

That could mean increased calls and longer wait times from officers if the hours are extended.

The ordinance also includes an extension for the sale of packaged alcohol goods as well, but only for businesses where the sale of such goods is imperative for revenue.

If the ordinance passes, St. Petersburg's bars would have the latest drinking hours in the county. The later hours could massively increase business at downtown bars and clubs.

But nothing is certain yet. The city council will meet on Thursday, May 6 for a public hearing and vote on the proposed ordinance.

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