With each clap of thunder, you could feel shivers run down the spines of nightclub owners. Jonathan Cordeau, a manager at Twilight on Seventh Avenue, listened to the downpour on a recent Saturday afternoon. "You can see your profits flowing down the streets in the rain," he mused.With a nightlife scene that's built on Thursday/Friday/Saturday business — and with Thursday and Friday markedly off — a washed-out Ybor City Saturday is indeed a sobering thought.
As it turns out, disaster was averted. By early evening, the winter cold front had cleared. The air turned crisp. People came and got drunk. Just not enough of them.
At 2 a.m., Twilight owner Robert Solomon gazed down onto Seventh from his club's balcony, sipped his Stoli and OJ, and said, "This is the slowest Saturday down here in a while."
His tone didn't have the ring of doom, probably because he is committed to making Twilight a live-music showcase for national and local acts — with events throughout the week. Saturday night anxieties are more apt to stay high for the strip's many drinking emporiums, like Club Hedo across the street, which hires comely young ladies to tote sandwich boards touting cut-rate cocktails.
Ybor City, Tampa's after-dark boomtown during the '90s, is in a slump. Business is off, foot traffic has slowed — so goes the refrain from bar and restaurant owners up and down the street. "I've heard people say by as much as 50 percent," says Solomon, whose year-old Twilight occupies what was once The Rubb.The days of Ybor City serving as the area's Party Central are over. Formidable competition has sprung up: the Channelside District, just a short trolley ride away; South Howard Avenue, with its string of tony restaurants and nightspots; International Plaza's upscale promenade; the resurgence of downtown St. Petersburg, spurred by the BayWalk complex. These places have stolen much of Ybor's most coveted clientele — folks with money and the willingness to spend it.
"These days, the street has become the party," Cordeau says. "Or kids can come down to Ybor with $15, park, get hammered on drink specials and still have money for Denny's."
Tampa Police Lt. Russ Marcotrigiano, a supervisor in the district, estimates the typical Ybor weekend crowd is 18-25 years old, and doesn't start arriving en masse until after 11 p.m. By then, he says, middle-age couples and families have long since fled, clearing way for the bacchanal.
Some Ybor defenders attribute the district's troubles to outside forces. They point to an economy in the dumper, a lingering post-Sept. 11 malaise and war jitters as reasons crowds have diminished. But it's unlikely you'd hear the same woe from bustling BayWalk. Vince Pardo, president of the city-affiliated Ybor City Development Corporation (YCDC), says he detected a "dramatic decrease in Friday night business," when BayWalk opened in November 2000.
Thursday nights once lured 350-400 to Flytrap, a dark alternative club. When attendance dwindled to "10 or 15," it closed on Thursdays, says manager Sandi Hein. Flytrap is in the midst of renovations and will reopen in early March as the HooDoo Room, with a bigger emphasis on live original music.
Seventh Avenue on weekend nights reverberates with a palpable sense of desperation. Many clubs are cutting each other's throats with price come-ons, giving little thought to their entertainment product. Most nightspots house DJs who spin mainstream rap and Top 40. A few book cover bands. "A lot of the clubs now have no soul," says Joe Gomez, co-owner of Cherry's, a Seventh Avenue restaurant/bar.
Echoes Cordeau: "What does it say when you go out to a nightclub and have the same experience you could at a pool party?"
Such a lowest-common-denominator strategy may have worked in the '90s, when officials routinely estimated that 30,000-40,000 partiers would flock to Ybor on an average weekend. That's plenty of thirsty folk to go around. With current crowd estimates ranging from 10,000-20,000, though, it's readily apparent that the strip has become an environment of haves and have-nots.
At midnight on a recent Friday, three-tiered Prana sported a long line to get in. Many headed toward the roof, where a band played reggae and Island music. Folks also queued up for Amphitheater; the techno music throbbed and the lights swirled and the mob on the dancefloor looked as if they were collectively holding each other up.
Hip-hop kids waited outside to enter Fuel. The crowded Empire, another rap club, emanated a creeping sense of hostility. A bouncer who saw me jotting in my notebook approached. "What are you writing that down for?" he barked over the bass-heavy din. "Don't worry, I'm not a cop," I replied, handing him a business card. He eyed it, looked me up and down and walked away. (Then I wondered what he would've done if I was a cop.)