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Tampa scraps proposal for early alcohol sales at bars

TAMPA In a hail of opposition from business owners, a Tampa City Council proposal to curb crime by requiring special permits for alcohol sales after midnight died Thursday morning.

The measure could be reborn with input from a committee of business owners, neighborhood residents and government officials.

Council Chairman Charlie Miranda called for the community-wide effort after opposition mounted against the proposal by Councilwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin for late-night permits.

Council members arrived at Old City Hall on Thursday morning to find a roomful of angry business owners facing them across the dais.

Opponents of the proposal spent more than an hour telling council members the proposal is a threat to their livelihoods. They also said it would punish well-behaved businesses just to catch a few bad operators.

“This is a sweeping regulation which imposes a fine on people whether they’ve done anything or one,” said Walter Aye, chairman of the Ybor City Development Corp. “In effect you’re guilty until proven innocent.”

But supporters said the proposal, which would create a permit that could be revoked for illegal activity, was a stick that would enforce good behavior.

“But the stick doesn’t put them out of business,” said South Tampa resident John Jones. “Everybody who’s complaining about how onerous this is, they have to buy a business license every year.”

City council members have promised the late-night permit would cost very little. Its main purpose would be to give the city some leverage over businesses with a history of criminal activity.

The permit would apply to future businesses and to older business that now operate under hours set by the city code. Those hours allow alcohol service from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. most days.

The late-night permit Capin proposed would have had no effect on most bars and restaurants opened since 1998 — the year the council began making operating hours part of a site’s zoning.

That was done to try to get a grip on businesses that were flouting the city’s rules. One unintended consequence is that it’s expensive to enforce those rules through court proceedings.

It’s not clear the people in the crowd on Thursday understood the finer points of the proposal. Many berated the council for proposing to end alcohol service at midnight, which was not the intention.

Councilman Harry Cohen said the council jumped the gun by bringing Capin’s proposal forward for a vote before it had gotten more thorough vetting.

Councilman Mike Suarez quoted the film “Cool Hand Luke:” “What we have here is a failure to communicate,” he said. “This was a well-intentioned, although not fully formed, discussion about what we want to do. We need to build the foundation again from the very beginning.”

Capin proposed the late-night permit in October. It was the council’s latest attempt to restrain bad behavior by patrons and owners of Tampa’s night clubs and bars. Council members last considered restrictions in May 2012.

That 2012 discussion came six months after five people were shot outside Club Manilla just east of Ybor City. Weeks before, two other people had been shot at Club Empire on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City.

Those shootings produced a council chamber filled with angry residents demanding the council do something to deal with such behavior.

In May, city officials complained that state liquor laws give local government little power to challenge irresponsible club owners. The list of infractions that can cost a club its liquor license is short and doesn’t include shootings, fights or sale of alcohol or tobacco to minors.

Capin reminded opponents Thursday that Tampa’s proposed late-night permit is based on practices in place already in other cities. St. Petersburg grants one, as does Fort Lauderdale and 19 Florida counties, she said.

That did little to staunch the opposition.

One after another, business owners told council members the proposal would bankrupt their businesses, kill jobs and stifle their future plans in the city.

“Most of us have been counting ice cubes to get through this recession,” said Troy Manthey, owner of Yacht Starship Dining Cruises.

Capin asked for a delay in considering her proposal until Feb. 27, when the council has a workshop scheduled. But that request went nowhere.

At the end of more than two hours of public comment and council debate, council members voted 5-2 against discussing the proposal in February. Miranda called for starting from scratch with a committee that can sort through the competing interests and produce something more people can agree on.

Bob Morrison, executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel Motel Association, told council members his group is willing to work with them to reach the goal of reining in business scofflaws.

“Our sense is that what’s before us today doesn’t get us anywhere near where you desire to be,” Morrison said.

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