Is downtown's identity as a vibrant club and nightlife district -- the envy of many a depressed urban center -- under attack yet again by the city of Orlando?
Club owners seem to think so. They point to statements in recent weeks by officers of the Orlando Police Department who warned that, as soon as Oct. 25, places would be shut down on Sundays if the booze business wasn't balanced by non-alcohol income. In clubland's competitive environment, those Sunday nights are a major lure that both helps to keep certain clubs afloat and supports a variety of other businesses on and off Orange Avenue.
But sensing panic -- and perhaps blindsided itself by the police action -- Mayor Glenda Hood's office insisted this week that those threats would not be carried out. "I'm sure the mayor and the city commissioners are going to want to look at this," said Hood spokesman Jim DeSimone. "So there's no shutdown of any establishment in the offing."
The threat stems from provisions in an old city ordinance that have been quietly ignored. In particular, that ordinance requires businesses to close on Sundays unless they earn 50 percent of their income from non-alcoholic sales. "Regardless, all of us were aware that Sunday openings were permissible and any antiquated ordinance was not going to be enforced," said an Oct. 12 letter to Hood from club owners that seeks to overturn the old rule. Indeed, Sunday-night business has been the norm for up to nine years, the letter added.
Presumably, the city now will begin a process to reconsider and update the rules.
Still, pub, club and restaurant owners could be forgiven their worry. A few years ago the granting of liquor licenses was briefly halted while a task force debated distances between bars and churches. And last year the city forced clubs to close by 3 a.m. -- which most were doing anyway -- in an overreaction to the all-night dances hosted by just one, The Club at Firestone. In many minds, this latest squeeze seemed to fit an ongoing pattern.
So concerned were club owners and managers that nearly 40 gathered this past Saturday night to trade tales and forge the rare unified response. That meeting was organized by Mike Levine from Tittle Tattle II; Mark NeJame, an attorney and part owner of Zuma Beach; and David Siminou, a real estate investor who operates the clubs Icon and Cairo.
Siminou, who formerly also owned the Blue Room, relayed the group's concern against growing competition from new nightlife zones at Disney and Universal, whose CityWalk complex will open next year. Theme parks are exempt from the restraints that are imposed on bars and clubs downtown, and in fact can stay open all night.
The city, he said, has "got a leash on our neck, and they're trying to pull us back."
Barrie Freeman, who runs three clubs on Wall Street Plaza -- Go Lounge, Kit Kat Club and Harold & Maude's Espresso Bar -- added: "It's just one more incident where a lot of downtown club owners are looking at each other, saying, ‘What's going on?' ... For some reason we constantly seem to be the target of City Hall."
Even the police were sketchy about what prompted the alarm.
"Apparently one of the officers thought some of the clubs were in violation of the ordinance," said spokesman Sgt. Jeff Goltz, "and so now we have to look at the clubs. I don't think there's going to be strict enforcement right now. There needs to be some issues panned out."
Club owners seemed deliberately non-aligned during the crackdown on late nights. An exception was Siminou, whose clubs stayed open until 4 a.m.; he joined with owners of The Club to oppose an earlier closing, and has felt the dropoff in his business since the law took effect. Meanwhile, non-alcohol clubs have sprouted -- one as recently as last week -- in an attempt to recapture the late-night crowd away from downtown.
Finally united, club owners now vow to seek a change that will let them sell liquor an hour later, until 3 a.m. -- and keep their doors open until 4 a.m.