As downtown St. Petersburg continues to grow and city leaders continue to praise its renaissance, the city is also trying to come to grips with how to improve and pay for downtown security.
On Thursday, local business owners and city council agreed to hold off proposing an ordinance for downtown security regulations until the St. Pete Chamber and businesses have had an opportunity to meet and review potential regulations.
Two years ago the city extended bar hour closing times from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. That move, according to Mayor Bill Foster, made the police department adjust shifts and has increased the need for additional security.
"The challenge began when we went from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m.," he said.
Chief Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn presented a menu of options to combat downtown crime and to help the city cover the costs to the city council Thursday.
Also at the table Thursday were multiple bar, club and restaurant owners from downtown St. Pete.
"We are here to fix it not just deal with it anymore," Foster said of increased security concerns. "Something that will keep our downtown thriving and get people home safely, which is our ultimate goal."
The options Winn proposed, he said, were not part of an official proposal, just items that the city could pick and choose.
Winn’s suggestions would require downtown establishments (from Bayfront to 20th Street and 5th Avenue North to 5th Avenue South) serving alcohol past midnight to apply for a permit.
Should the business have more than 200 patrons, Winn’s draft would require the business to hire two off-duty police officers for outside the establishment on Friday, Saturday and days with special events with more than 200 people expected. The draft would also require inside security, which would not have to be off-duty officers.
For bars with less than 200 patrons, extra security requirements could be added to those businesses that show a history of non-compliance or multiple incidents that require police assistance.
While the permit for anyone serving alcohol past 3 a.m. would be a "nominal fee" for all businesses no matter what size, Foster discussed the idea of a security fee administered to establishments, as well.
"We need to generate revenue," Foster said. " ... There needs to be some revenue generated to cover the cost of the (police) manpower."
This fee suggestion drew the ire of multiple city members who said businesses already pay ad valorem property taxes and it would be unfair to those businesses to pay more just because of a high number of police calls downtown.
Council member Jeff Danner said bars downtown should not be singled out as the only one straining the police force.
"I think the (permitting) fees should be covering cost to collect the data," Danner said instead of an additional security fee. "If problems, occur then have a process for them for them to pay (an extra) fee."
"Providing public safety costs," Foster said. "It costs money."
Danner said if the problem is the number of police officers, the city should just hire more officers, not shift the burden to business owners.
Council member Karl Nurse and Danner said the city could deal with troublesome bars and clubs using the nuisance abatement model it uses with other establishments such as the motels along 34th Street.
"If you are a problem, like those motels, you are a nuisance to the surrounding area," Danner said.
Nurse agreed but said the current process is too slow and would need to be adjusted before any implementation.
Downtown business owners spoke up at the meeting and asked for more time before coming to the council with an official recommendation.
Mark Ferguson, owner of Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill , said it is working with the St. Pete Chamber to come up with a proposal.
He did say that any ordinance passed by the city should be citywide and not just limited to the downtown area. He said it is a shame that some businesses are causing more regulations on other establishments.
"I think there is just a couple bad apples that are spoiling the whole thing," he said.
"I don’t think we want to correct the problem by creating another," said owner of Midtown Sundries Charles Kott.
The council and the businesses owners agreed to get together at a later date once more conversations with bar owners could be had.
During an afternoon workshop Foster said the downtown establishments that generate the most police calls are Durty Nelly's, Club Scene, Vintage Ultra Lounge, Bishop Lounge & Tavern, Jannus Live and State Theatre.
The club most often cited and reference by those who spoke Thursday as a bad example of not taking security seriously was Scene Premium Night Club.
Council member Steve Kornell said police have told him that at times "clouds of marijuana smoke" could be seen hovering over the dance floor at Scene.
Along with Ferguson, owners from Vintage Ultra Lounge, Bishop Tavern, Emerald Bar, Midtown Sundries and Jonny Reno's spoke at the meeting.
The owners of Club Scene were not present at the meeting.
At the end of the lengthy discussion, council chair Leslie Curran said she said the city missed an opportunity to previously have this discussion before these problems arose.
"I wish we had had this much of a discussion before we changed the law to allow 3 a.m.," she said. " ... Sometimes we have those unintended circumstances after the fact."