Take back the night

Even before the city's late-night clampdown on downtown Orlando's bars and dance clubs took effect in 1997, club owners pointed frantically at the obvious: If forced to close at 2 a.m., how could they compete against nightlife districts at Disney and Universal, which fall outside the law and can stay open all night?

Their frustration focused on more than just local competition.

"We are the only tourist-based city in the state of Florida that has alcohol sales stop before 3 a.m.," Mark Nejame, a local attorney and part owner of Zuma Beach club, said last week. "Every other tourist city in the state of Florida -- Daytona Beach, Ybor City, Panama City, all the cities of South Florida, Miami and Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale -- has 3 a.m. or later licenses."

Still outraged -- and recently made aware that one theme park venue is gearing up to grab for late-night clubgoers -- those downtown clubs are pushing anew to leave their doors open later.

This time, however, they have a cohesive strategy. And that marks a huge change from the previous debate, when club owners failed to stand as one, predicting -- wrongly, it turned out -- that the city's ire and subsequent restrictions on late-night business would be focused solely on one nightspot, The Club at Firestone.

Buoyed by 12,000 petition signatures and holding up Fort Lauderdale as a successful model, the united group of about 40 club, restaurant and arts entrepreneurs soon will ask the city to formally designate a new downtown "entertainment district" in which booze can be sold until 3 a.m. and clubs can stay open until 4 a.m.

"The point is survival," says Jim Faherty, whose downtown businesses include the venerable Sapphire music club and the adjacent Bar BQ Bar eatery. "If Disney and these guys are just going to keep opening up bars, we want to be competitive."

The Fort Lauderdale example promises a new twist.

There, the city has created four "entertainment districts" -- areas as compact as one square block or a single complex á la Church Street Station -- in which alcohol may be sold for two hours beyond the city's otherwise-enforced 2 a.m. cutoff.

The districts were formed in part to address the fact that late-night patrons could, in some cases, practically cross the street into unincorporated Broward County, where the 2 a.m. closing does not apply, says Capt. Bob Pusins of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. But it also became a lure for new business: A beachfront retail and restaurant complex called Beach Place only moved in after developers were assured that they, too, would be designated an "entertainment district." A similar designation was given to another development, Las Olas Riverfront, when it opened on Fort Lauderdale's downtown River Walk.

The zones -- first created in 1994, with more pending -- have not been without problems, says Pusins. Especially along beach areas, heavier traffic and noise have brought complaints from nearby condos. "The districts that are in our downtown area, because they're a distance from a residential area, we have very few complaints regarding noise," he says. "But traffic is still an issue."

Has there been any associated increase in drug- or alcohol-related arrests? "Not really. Maybe some increase in trash in the area." Adds the police captain: "One of the advantages of having an entertainment district is that in addition to staying open to 4 o'clock, patrons can carry open containers anywhere within the district. You can travel from bar to bar with a drink." But the zone's strict borders also mean you can be arrested for open-container violations simply by stepping off the adjacent sidewalk -- and those arrests have gone up, he says.

Fort Lauderdale's law says that, in order to qualify, a district must have at least 50,000 linear feet of contiguous businesses under common ownership and management. How Orlando's club owners would define it here isn't yet clear. Nor is it clear who on the city council, if anyone, might bring the issue to the table. The most likely candidate -- Daisy Lynum, elected with support from downtown business people angered by the city's action against the clubs -- could not be reached for comment.

But in a practical bow to Mayor Glenda Hood's campaign to create a cultural corridor, the united group at least has proposed a complementary name for their project: Orlando Entertainment and Arts District.

Those who back it finally came together over shared frustration with recent events, says Nejame.

First came the council's decision to halt alcohol sales at 2 a.m -- an hour earlier than recommended by a mayor's task force. Then came threats to arrest business owners who sold alcohol on Sundays, and hints that bars might have to shut down at midnight on Saturdays -- both police actions that were permitted by ordinance, but based on outdated and little-enforced laws. Lately, Orange Avenue has been intermittently and inconsistently shut down at night; most recently, police told Faherty he could not readmit patrons after 2 a.m., "which was just terrible," says Nejame, "because it put all our patrons at risk of not being able to find their friends or their ride home."

"There has been one frustration after another after another," he says. "Why we are not learning from [Fort Lauderdale's] model and why some city leaders are failing to have the vision to take us into the new millennium is absolutely mind-boggling to every business person that I've spoke to in downtown Orlando."

Starting next month, that long-anticipated late-night competition from the theme parks also kicks in. On Sept. 18, Hard Rock Live at Universal Studios CityWalk will partner with a local dance promoter to stage "Coliseum," a dance event that is the first of four tentatively scheduled during the next four months. "The doors will open at 10 p.m.," says a promotional flier, "but unlike most local clubs, the event will continue until 4 a.m., which is sure to make Coliseum the hottest party in Central Florida."

Significantly, "Coliseum" targets a gay crowd, and hopes to build on the audience that attended a similar event at Hard Rock Live during the June Gay Days. That's the same group that used to belong to The Club at Firestone, which previously hosted large street parties on those same Gay Day weekends.

In the wake of the city's 1997 action, Firestone sought an exemption to the late-night dictate in order to continue to host those parties.

The city, however, said no.

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