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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2017
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Businesses call on Tampa council to close Club Empire

TAMPA - Business and community leaders are planning to pack city council chambers this morning with demands the city shut down a crime-plagued Ybor City nightclub. They likely will come away disappointed. Several council members say they've been told by city officials not to publicly talk about Club Empire – the troubled Seventh Avenue night spot that was the scene of a fatal shooting nearly three weeks ago – amid concerns the issue may be headed for a courtroom. "We have been advised by the legal department not to discuss this," said Councilman Frank Reddick, who called for the discussion two weeks ago in response to a barrage of complaints from business owners and civic leaders about chronic violence at the club.
Thursday's expected rancor is the latest twist in a saga that pits Ybor businesses and civic leaders against Club Empire. Many businesses and residents are complaining the city hasn't done enough to address the problem; they're threatening to file a lawsuit. "The entire neighborhood is being affected and we're not confident the city will resolve it," said Tony LaColla, president of Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association. Mayor Bob Buckhorn said city officials are dealing with the problem, including meeting with club owners to discuss added security and conducting a complete review of the club's zoning requirements and liquor license to ensure the owner is in compliance. Police officials are expected to update the council today on those efforts. Managers or the owner of the nightclub could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Meanwhile, Ybor civic groups and business owners, including members of the Ybor City Development Corporation, have retained legal representation and are threatening to file a lawsuit against the club if the city government doesn't deal with the situation. LaColla said Ybor businesses have been complaining for years that the nightclub has given the district – listed on the national registry of historic places – a bad reputation. On Oct. 2, Leslie Jones Jr., 20, was fatally shot inside the club. Another man, Ahmaud Black, 19, was also shot in the chest but is recovering, according to police. The shootings were the latest in a litany of incidents at the club in the past decade. In 2002, a bouncer was fatally shot outside the club. Four years later, another person was fatally stabbed in an adjacent parking lot during a brawl. And in December 2009, an argument inside the club ended outside with a 21-year-old man being shot in the chest. Since the beginning of the year, there have been more than 100 calls for service to the venue, though most have been minor incidents, according to police records. Tampa police officials recently met with club owners, who have agreed to new security measures, including hiring more staff, reducing the number of entrances and installing more cameras and an "airport-grade" metal detector to screen patrons for weapons. Community leaders and residents, including Sharon Jones, the mother of the man killed on Oct. 2, have held protests outside the club calling on the city to shut it down.

cwade@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7679

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