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Winter Park’s image rests on upscale hair salons, high-end art galleries and pricey exclusive boutiques. Its signature shopping corridor along Park Avenue contains picturesque rose gardens, nail salons, trendy wine bars and restaurants – even a dog bakery and trinket shop called Bullfish. And those are exactly the kinds of businesses that city officials want to spread citywide.

Businesses the city deems unseemly, on the other hand, aren’t so well-received. In March 2007, the city commission passed a moratorium on tattoo shops, used-car dealerships, pawn shops and fortunetellers – an effort to keep out the riffraff.

“Originally the idea was to place these prohibitions just on Fairbanks Avenue as a method to help slowly evolve the character of that gateway corridor into the city,” Jeff Briggs, the city’s planning director, writes in an e-mail to Orlando Weekly. “However, both the planning commission and the city commission agreed that this should be done citywide.”

Fairbanks Avenue, the thoroughfare that takes you into Winter Park from Interstate 4, may never resemble the posh Park Avenue, Briggs admits. Nor is the transformation the city wants going to occur overnight. “The goal is to get it to look more like a Lake Mary Boulevard than South Orange Blossom Trail,” Briggs writes.

But the city’s disdain for such “undesirable” businesses may backfire.

Black Chapel Tattoo Studio, which opened last summer – it escaped the moratorium by transferring an existing business license – is threatening a lawsuit. It accuses the city and its police department of harassment. Eli Tobias, owner of the Fairbanks Avenue Black Chapel, says he’s fed up with what he believes to be a double standard.

“I understand that the city may not like tattoos, which they have their opinion to, but they have no right to try to put the shop out of business because they don’t like tattoos,” Tobias says. “They’re looking at anything and everything they can do to bust our balls.”

In recent months his business has been shuttered because of a licensing mistake. He’s been told that he can no longer sell alcohol to adult customers, and the city denied his request for a permit that would allow him to do just that – even though Tobias claims Winter Park officials had previously told him that his zoning permitted alcohol sales.

On Jan. 31 Tobias’ attorney, David Rickey, sent a letter to Winter Park Mayor David Strong demanding that the city and police department stop harassing Tobias’ studio. That letter served as an official notice that Tobias plans to sue. (Under state law, the city and police department must be notified six months before a lawsuit can be filed.)

Strong didn’t return phone calls.

“The biggest issue is the use of the Winter Park Police Department to put forth the city commission’s desire to eliminate tattoo studios from Winter Park,” Rickey says. “This was illegally done using the city and Winter Park police as their strongmen.”

The problems began in the early morning of Dec. 8, when Winter Park police showed up at the tattoo shop after receiving a noise complaint. Tobias had organized a live music show in the adjacent warehouse space owned by his wife, and was handing out free beer to those over 21. (He hired an employee to check IDs.) Some 400 people had gathered outside the tattoo studio that night, lining outdoor picnic benches and spilling over into the warehouse space – an art gallery complete with a pool table, video games and caged reptiles.

“There were a lot of people there – I did my job,” says Tobias, the former owner of downtown clubs Thee Grotto and Eli’s Crib. “Just because I’m tattooed doesn’t mean I can’t use my brain.” Tobias says he thought Camel Cigarettes, which hosted the party, had obtained a special-event permit. They hadn’t.

While serving that complaint, the cops discovered that Tobias’ occupational license had expired and shut down the tattoo shop that night, though that authority lies with the city’s code enforcement department, not city police. Generally, when such a license is expired, the city code officers give a business five days before issuing a citation, and their doors aren’t shuttered, according to city officials. Businesses are usually closed only for major safety concerns.

The city later acknowledged that the license renewal had been mailed to Black Chapel, but never got there because of a mailing error. The city waived late fees and the shop reopened two days later, but Tobias was told he couldn’t serve alcohol. The next day, on Dec. 11, Black Chapel filled out an application for a beverage license, but the city turned him down and didn’t give a reason, Tobias says.

Sylvia Wellon-Wooten, Winter Park’s chief of code enforcement, says the city denied Tobias’ beverage license because Black Chapel falls within 300 feet of residences, and because the business would need to be a restaurant with at least 24 seats.

But numerous Winter Park art galleries, and hair and nail salons such as Capricci Ricci, routinely offer free alcoholic beverages to draw in customers. Bullfish, a Park Avenue purveyor of gourmet dog treats and gifts, offers regular wine tastings. Salon Ciseaux and the Exclusive Body Wax Salon regularly offer wine to their customers.

Wellon-Wooten says those businesses would be asked to stop, too – if they’re caught.

By Dec. 20, Black Chapel received the occupational license it needs to operate the adjacent property as an art gallery, but Tobias was told they could not use the pool table or video games that were already inside the building.

That same day, Winter Park cops called Killarney Baptist Church, located next door to the tattoo shop, and pressured the church to tell the Black Chapel it could no longer use the church’s parking lot for overflow parking at night, during the tattoo parlor’s peak hours. Pastor Bruce Mayhew couldn’t be reached.

Winter Park Sgt. Pam Marcum confirms that the police department did call the church, but she says that call was only made to inform the church about the large nighttime crowds, not to demand that the church restrict access to its parking lot.

By January, Tobias says that police officers regularly parked their squad cars in front of the shop, slowing business. On one occasion, an employee was harassed when he arrived early for work. Marcum says she’s not sure why cops were parking outside the business. “It’s possible they were running radar in the area. That does happen on Fairbanks,” she says.

After a second night observing cops in front of his business, Tobias called the police. He says he was told it was only “for your protection.” “It makes people nervous about what’s going on inside,” Tobias says. “I would not blame anyone for driving right by. That’s the image they’re trying to give our place. They never parked here before. We’ve lowered our prices to get people in here because the city of Winter Park has made it so difficult.”

The final insult came Jan. 22 when Matthew Thilmony, who owns the property on which Black Chapel sits, asked Briggs if he knew Tobias. Tobias says Briggs responded: “Yes, all too well; Eli has an answer for everything. Are they still throwing raves?” Tobias says Briggs also insinuated that Tobias dealt drugs.

Asked about that conversation, Briggs says that he was only relaying a complaint from a neighboring property owner. Oddly, that property owner is Jim Veigle, the owner of Rachel’s Gentlemen’s Club – a strip club that has had more than its share of run-ins with the law. Tobias doesn’t believe Briggs: “He’s trying to cover his ass.”

Veigle could not be reached by deadline.

Tobias says such harassment has cost him financially. “The city of Winter Park is big and powerful with a lot of money,” Tobias says. “I’m sure they get pressure from old people who don’t want tattoo shops in their city. … Weekends are where the money is and that’s what they’re effectively trying to take away from us.”

The city denies that it is trying to force out Black Chapel. “[Black Chapel is] painting the picture that we’re trying to go after tattoo parlors and that’s not the case,” says city spokeswoman Clarissa Howard. “They had an unpermitted party and that’s why they were called to our attention. There are other tattoo shops on Fairbanks we haven’t even visited.”

Howard says other businesses are treated the same as Black Chapel. Tobias thinks not. “Having a Winter Park address is always a plus for a business,” he says. “I guess that is if you have a business that the city of Winter Park approves of.”

Just past midnight on Feb. 18, Tobias says, Winter Park cops sneaked onto Black Chapel’s property through an adjacent business. They flashed flashlights around the parking lot. When Tobias asked, the cops said they were on a “self-initiated search.” Rickey, Tobias’ lawyer, filed a complaint and demanded an investigation. For Tobias, this incident provides more evidence that the city simply wants to shut him down.

dsheffield@orlandoweekly.com

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