TAMPA — The Tampa City Council has spent hundreds of hours and thousands of words debating the best way for the city to keep a lid on businesses that serve alcohol.
On Thursday, they agreed to call a halt until next spring.
At the suggestion of Council Frank Reddick, the council voted 4-3 to put off further discussion of late-night permits until next April. It was the second time the late-night permit has been shelved since it was first proposed in December.
Councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin offered the late-night permit as a tool for the city to hold over bars, restaurants and night clubs that want to stay open past midnight. She pulled the proposal before it even got a hearing when Ybor City business owners objected.
Thursday morning, council members waded back into the subject of alcohol permitting. During more than two hours, they learned a few things from city officials:
♦ Tampa has 1,353 businesses — from grocery stories to strip clubs — with city-issued permits to sell alcohol. About 20 percent of them are in downtown, Ybor City, Channelside and the South Howard Avenue corridor.
♦ Any given year, about a dozen of those 1,353 businesses have the kind of problems that prompt investigations by the city and/or state.
♦ Of those, only a single business each year reaches the point of having its alcohol permit suspended or revoked by the city or state.
The report prompted Councilwoman Lisa Montelione to suggest her colleagues stop trying to fix something that isn’t broken.
“We’ve discussed this ad infinitum, and we’ve come back to the same place,” Montelione said, exasperated. “It’s the small amount of people that cause problems. I really think we need to put this whole discussion to bed.”
She found herself alone.
“In my district, we do have a problem,” said Councilman Harry Cohen, who represents South Tampa. “It’s on Howard Avenue and it has been very difficult to deal with through the years. We need to keep talking to solve these problems.”
Council members have spent years trying to get a grip on bars, restaurants and night clubs that stir up their neighbors — neighbors who then come to council members looking for relief from noise, bad behavior and crime.
The current council rescinded alcohol permits three years ago after shootings at Club Manila in East Tampa and Club Empire in Ybor City. At the time, Ybor residents had asked the council to intervene.
Lately, Tampa’s bar-related problems have shifted across town to South Howard Avenue, SoHo for short. Weekend nights, the normally quiet street erupts with traffic, jaywalking bar-hoppers and noise.
SoHo has 40 businesses with city alcohol permits; about two dozen are bars and restaurants.
Cohen said he spent the past few weeks visiting businesses along South Howard to get a better understanding of what goes on there.
“The problems that we’re talking about have all sort of different causes,” he said. Some of those causes are things the city can’t fix.
“A great deal of this problem is created by human beings behaving badly,” Cohen said. “Nothing we do up here is going to do anything about people acting out.”
Cohen said the city needs to tackle its problems with troublesome businesses from lots of different angles to chip away at the problems.
“The problems on Howard don’t have one magic bullet to solve them,” he said.
He repeated his call for the city to stop writing alcohol permits into the zoning of properties, as it has done since 1998. That approach means a site permitted for alcohol stays that way regardless of what business operates there.
It also makes it extremely difficult for the city to strip sites of their permits because they become property rights, protected by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Cohen wants the city to find a way to permit alcohol sales in a way that makes it easier to revoke that permission if a bar or its patrons become a problem.
“If 10 years from now we are still attaching these permits to the land,” Cohen said, “we’re going to be in trouble.”