Reasons bar-owners are frustrated over the drinking hours debate in Orlando

It turns out, the city’s proposition to extend last call by one hour may not be good for some bars

Ten years ago, when Orlando’s Downtown Strategic Transition team first contemplated the idea of expanding downtown drinking hours into the wee hours of the morning as a means of facilitating commerce in a flailing downtown core, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. Despite the stereotype of a downtown Orlando partier – say, a young woman on a weekend bender, vomiting on an Orange Avenue curb just after last call at 2 a.m. – the notion that we could match other, wilder big cities by simply accepting the more-is-better economic development paradigm wasn’t so far-fetched. If the stereotypical partier were to be vomiting at 3 a.m. instead, well, that would just be an opportunity for somebody else to get equally as drunk and spend that much more cash in the process. A mounted police officer would whiz by and control the situation, and the week would begin anew on Monday, no long-term harm done. The idea died nonetheless.

But much has changed in the last decade. These days downtown morphs into a dry-heaving weekend beast, only now with more residential property within its boundaries and a palpable sense that it has grown up somewhat. The city has plopped billions into new entertainment venues and a movie theater; Church Street Station is (still) awaiting the rebirth promised by developments in the southern Orange Avenue corridor. Despite attempts otherwise, the reckless abandon of bar culture still rules over dining and retail efforts. As a result, the city is trying to resurrect the drinking-hours extension concept, but only inasmuch as it suits the repurposing of downtown’s maturing image.

“It’s not broken,” Downtown Development Board executive director Thomas Chatmon says. “We have a very vibrant nightlife. The question is: How can we tweak it? How can we add to the customers downtown?”

While it may seem like a boon for the increasingly diverse owners and operators on the downtown nightlife circuit, the reaction to the changes has been decidedly mixed due to the fact that the Downtown Development Board’s “Destination Downtown” plan drafted in April isn’t really about making life easier for bar owners; rather, it’s a series of increased (and sometimes dubious) regulations that raise the costs and consequences of doing business, while dangling the carrot of one hour’s worth of additional drinking revenue. However, even the increased patronage comes at a price: Businesses will be forced to purchase identification scanners, hire off-duty cops, pull permits and staff appropriately for the potentially larger crowds. We spoke with a number of the interested parties – as well as with the city – to sort out the concerns related to the proposed changes. Though far from a consensus – some bars say they’d appreciate the extra business; others cater to older crowds – the rumbles of anxiety coming from Orange Avenue and beyond are justified. So, what’s the problem with expanding Orlando’s last call from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m., exactly?

It’s been tried before

The city’s puritanical take on downtown bacchanalia reared its ugly head back in 1997, when city commissioners and Mayor Glenda Hood, fearing widespread drug abuse and related shenanigans, passed a muted anti-rave ordinance. The move was particularly controversial because Rolling Stone had recently declared Orlando a rave capital, largely because of the all-night parties at the Club at Firestone (now Firestone Live). The ordinance was a symbolic move that retained the cessation of liquor service at 2 a.m., but also forced clubs to close completely by 3 a.m. Those are the laws still in place today.

In 2003, under the tutelage of new Mayor Buddy Dyer, a strategic team proposed a looser-tied change of heart: extending drinking hours to 3 a.m. (and 4 a.m. on weekends). That move was widely supported by downtown nightlife establishments, but drew public outcry that led to it being taken off the table for a decade.

John Gardner, owner of Independent Bar downtown, remembers those discussions. He says they were really just a “big push for Firestone,” which had been slighted six years before by the anti-rave ordinance. “A lot of people wanted 3 a.m. liquor at the time,” he says. “I’m happy to see that more people seem to be against it now than back then.”

But just like then, Gardner remains against the drinking-hours extension. “If you want to appeal to a wider spectrum, giving them 3 a.m. liquor is not going to help. Three o’clock liquor would just push everybody further back into the night. You have a social cost there. The natural order of dinner, bar, then nightclub – they fit nicely.”


The whole process has been done in secret

Though the city claims that it has tried to keep the process of reintroducing the drinking-hours extension transparent, many downtown – and outlying – bar owners came across the information secondhand. Certain larger bar interests were privy to the planning via access to the DDB, something city spokeswoman Heather Fagan says wasn’t necessarily by design. “If you were to have all 87 bars at the table, you would never make progress,” she says. “Maybe they should have had a smaller bar owner at the table, in hindsight.”

That’s brought confusion and resentment (or “misinformation,” as Fagan says) from some of the smaller bars that aren’t considered “players” in the discussion.

“This all came public after a few of us called the city and started asking questions, but at the same time the performing arts center is moving closer to opening and the Magic announced the land purchase for entertainment center. Kind of fishy timing?” Aaron Dudek, co-owner of the Lodge, says in an email. “The city has created our questioning of their motives in all of this, and anything they do by the cloak-and-dagger style they have chosen. It would be a wonderful thing if we felt like they were on our side and had our backs.”

It wasn’t until late April that the city decided to hold meetings with downtown bar owners for their input. By then, the regulatory plans had already been drafted, though Fagan insists that the city is still honing the plans to reflect the concerns of the businesses. Dozens of downtown bar owners convened their own meeting at the Lodge last month, and the general consensus, according to several of those in attendance, was that with the regulations as stated, none were fully in support of the plan.

It’s being done to benefit off-duty cops

Though most of the bars that currently have occupancies exceeding 300 people already employ off-duty Orlando police officers, the proposed ordinance would mandate their presence at those establishments. The bar owners we spoke to that do utilize off-duty officers estimated that cost to be around $25,000 a year (according to Fagan, OPD Chief Paul Rooney “thinks that number is too high”), and that does not include insurance.

“It’s a loss of entitlement for the operators. You end up with costly appeals or increased insurance costs,” says Marc Bortz of Bortz Group, a venue-management company with several downtown properties. “If you mandate that bar owners use police officers, from my experience, that’s how you get corruption.”

Specifically, Bortz calls into question the allegiance of an officer who is employed by the city and a private business at the same time. “They want us to pay these guys $40 an hour. Aren’t you going to protect your job first?”

Independent Bar’s Gardner would be directly affected by the mandate, as he does not currently employ off-duty officers. He says that his bar has only called 911 an average of four times a year. “We don’t have a violence problem,” he says. “So requiring me to hire off-duty, I literally do not know what the police officers would do. Just stand around?”

In 2010, the Orlando Police Department conducted a study of its off-duty police program following 28 formal internal affairs investigations in 2009 against cops who had allegedly engaged in misconduct or operational violations. The study determined that more oversight of police doing off-duty work was needed.


It could destroy the downtown economy

A major concern among the downtown businesses is the apparent redrafting of downtown’s demographics. Under the proposed ordinance, bars within the Community Redevelopment Agency boundaries would be required to admit only patrons aged 21 and up in order to remain open after midnight. Businesses wishing to stay open later would have to have a $500 annual permit and cease admission of underage patrons after 10 p.m. That, according to several businesses, would send a message to schools, like the University of Central Florida and Full Sail University, that students are no longer welcome downtown.

By the city’s estimation, this is a public-safety issue. After numerous reports of violence after the clubs let out – some of it coming from underage drinkers – the city is hoping to remove the youth element from the equation. That way, the city hopes, a more mature audience will return to Orange Avenue.

Five of the seven largest downtown areas in the state of Florida already have 21-plus requirements, so it’s a natural evolution.

Opponents contend that the move is short-sighted. “It’s the wrong thing to do,” Bortz says. “It will be bad for business, it will make real estate prices go down, make real estate taxes go down and drop income from parking decks.” Bortz adds that the city’s plan doesn’t take into account the revenues lost for restaurants.

Tony Khuu, an operating partner with Vain Nightclub, sees it at as a business killer. Vain is an 18-and-up club, and Khuu says that a lot of clubs are forced to be more inclusive for financial reasons. “That demographic goes out,” he says. “Eighteen-to-25-year-olds go out. A lot of 25-year-olds look for 20-year-old girls. If you eliminate that, it kind of kills the energy.”

“We’re not Miami. We’re not Las Vegas,” he says. “If we get rid of the under-21 crowd, 25-to-30-year-olds won’t come downtown. You have a young professional crowd. They go to restaurants and go home by 12 a.m.”

Likewise, the age shift could affect the life of the downtown local music scene. Under the proposed ordinance, live venues could only host all-ages shows if they obtain a permit for each individual night. In order to qualify for the permit, the establishment must host “live” musical performances 50 percent of the time. That’s troubling to Khuu, who hosts DJ events at Vain, because nobody has qualified what “live” music is. (Fagan says that the city is still working out distinctions, and that the permitting process isn’t intended to be difficult.)

But even for traditional live venues, the effect could be costly, and the squeezing out of a thriving live music scene would have a trickle-down effect on nearby establishments that don’t host music, says Gene Zimmerman, owner of downtown’s Courtesy Bar.

“One of the main reasons I live in Orlando, or came here in the first place, is because of live music,” he says. “If they make them pull permits for every show, not only is that expensive, it’s laborious. I don’t want to see it go that way.”

It unfairly excludes businesses not in the CRA

When word first broke about the city delving back into the drinking-hours extension, the main opponents were those who would not be allowed the extra hour of business. Because the ordinance would apply to the entire Community Redevelopment Agency area of downtown – which includes parts of Thornton Park and Church Street in the downtown corridor – bars in the Mills 50 district cried foul on the exclusion because they think it creates an unfair advantage for downtown businesses.

“It’s clearly a hostile move for our business environment,” says Will Walker, owner of Mills 50 bars Will’s Pub and Lil’ Indies. The ordinance is clearly designed for drinking establishments, he says, yet it somehow excludes much of the city. “I can’t for the life of me think of another group of businesses they would treat this way.”

Also troubling to Walker is that other Orlando bars were kept out the loop. The city did eventually call a meeting of non-downtown bars, Walker says, but the attitude was “basically, go fuck yourself.”

Fagan confirms the meeting, but says that of the bars that were interested in the extended hours, few would be inclined to take on the additional regulations to make it work. “This isn’t a pick-and-choose entrée,” she says. “People are choosing to listen to certain parts of it.”

But Walker, who says he couldn’t even afford to manage the requirements, contends that the big picture of the ordinance is shortsighted.

“Three o’clock is going to make things better down there?” he says. “The problem they have down there is that they overserve people and they throw them out the front door. Making it 3 a.m., that’s going to fix it? It’s not the kids.”

Businesses fear retribution

Written into the proposed ordinance are nine potential violations – after-hours alcohol, underage attendance and noise among them – that businesses could face if the proposal passes. If they rack up six violations in one permit year, they could lose their permits to operate for a full year. That six-strikes-and-you’re-out proposal has businesses on edge about enforcement.

“The goal with that is to try to show enough severity with the infractions that, if you’ve done them six times in a year, you’re probably a risk anyway,” Fagan says.

Logan Berkowitz, a managing partner with Florida Entertainment Specialists, which runs downtown bar the Attic, is skeptical. Even with ID scanners – which could cost up to $1,500 – there’s still the potential that somebody could get in the front door with a real drivers license that has a picture that just happens to look like him or her.

“Now I need to make sure that my door guy doesn’t doze off or something,” he says. “I fear how they’re going to do the enforcement. I do believe they have good intentions, but they’re not bar operators or bar owners. Some of their deputies are not very understanding. ... I just fear that you’re giving too much power to this law-enforcement group. I hope their message isn’t to shut down bars. Some of the violations are so minimal.”

But the potential for violations would likely increase with the added hour of drinking, says Independent Bar’s Gardner. It’s logical that the likelihood of drug abuse would increase, and the onus would be on the bar owner to control it.

“The biggest thing is that I think it denies due process,” Gardner says. “You’ve got the police. They’re enforcing the law, and they’re also being the judge and jury.”

Frank Hamby, who owns the Beacham Theater, is likewise concerned about the city pushing public safety onto bars’ shoulders. “I am concerned about how the new ordinance would be enforced and by what means any enforcement action could be appealed,” he writes in an email. “To this point there are only rumors and talking points regarding the ordinance.”


Rules of the city’s proposed new after-hours permit

Establishment must be 21-and-over after 10 p.m. (10:30 p.m. if dinner was served that evening)
Drinking hours would be extended Thursday through Saturday
Last call: 3 a.m.
Drinks finished: 3:15 a.m.
Lights out: 3:30 a.m. (currently, lights out is
at 3 a.m.)
Drinking hours would also be extended on New Year’s Eve, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Halloween and the Wednesday before Thanksgiving
ID scanners would be required for bars that hold 100 people or more
Off-duty officer would be required for bars open past midnight that have occupancy of more than 300 people
All-ages permits only issued for bars that offer music 50 percent of the time they are open
All-ages shows must clear out after show is over
All-ages shows must offer pre-sale for tickets

Six-strikes-and-you’re-out violations:

Serving of alcohol after hours
Failure to allow inspection of establishment
Allowing anyone under 21 to enter when not lawfully authorized
Failure to use electronic ID scanners
Failure to hire off-duty OPD officers as required
Failure to post After Hours Permit near entrance
Fairly to comply with city’s noise ordinance
Underage drinking


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