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Cover 05/29/2013

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

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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

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