Two weeks before New Year's Eve, the Orlando City Council gave downtown club owners permission to sell alcohol an extra hour -- as late as 3 a.m., with a 4 a.m. closing time -- on Dec. 31.
The reason is simple: The state allows the theme parks to stay open all night anyway, so giving downtown bar owners the chance to peddle booze a bit later evens out the playing field on a "celebratory" night, says outgoing Downtown Development Board director Tom Kohler. Indeed, the extension is almost unremarkable, given that Orlando has done the same thing on New Year's Eve for several years now.
But what about the other 364 nights of the year? Attorney Mark Nejame, a co-owner of the Orange Avenue dance club Tabu, has for years pleaded for the extra hour, only to be dismissed by Mayor Glenda Hood, who four years ago cracked down on the city's late-night rave scene. The hours that Hood rejects -- a 3 a.m. end to alcohol sales, with a 4 a.m. closing time -- are the same ones endorsed by the task force Hood convened in 1997 to review late-night operating hours. Hood, however, cast that recommendation aside when she and the council ordered clubs closed at 3 a.m, with alcohol sales cut off an hour earlier
"We think the policy is good the way it is," says Susan Blexrud, the mayor's spokeswoman. "`New Year's Eve is` the one time people do like to stay out a little later. For that one night, we want to give people the opportunity to party-hardy a little later."
"Of course it's hypocritical," Nejame responds. Orlando, he says, is the only tourism-centered city in Florida with a 2 a.m. cut-off -- Daytona Beach, South Miami Beach, Tampa's Ybor City and downtown Fort Lauderdale all are allowed to stay open later. Even worse, as he sees it, none of those cities have to compete with the twin behemoths of Universal and Disney.
Disney doesn't take advantage of the loophole the state offers, which in essence allows it to serve alcohol all night. In fact, says Disney World spokesman Bill Warren, Pleasure Island adheres to Orange County's policies, which currently are in tandem with the cities. (Even on New Year's Eve, Pleasure Island clubs stop serving at 2 a.m. and close at 3 a.m.) Still, it's obvious that downtown clubs have suffered since Pleasure Island and Universal's Citywalk came along, and Nejame believes the extra time could revive downtown's struggling nightlife.
His attempt to prove his point to Hood and Police Chief Jerry Demmings this past June was "a total and monumental waste of time," he says. "She reneged on her word to give the issue consideration, and used me and other business people to achieve her political objectives."
Next year, Nejame vows to try again. But does the city have enough progressives to counter Hood's position?
"We've got to be consistent," says Commissioner Ernest Page, who backs Nejame's proposal. The city's goal, he says, should be giving downtown business owners a "competitive edge. If one hour is going to do that, I'd like to know what detriment that's going to cause to the downtown area."
At one time, says Commissioner Daisy Lynum, the mayor's fear of a downtown perceived solely as a place for drunken revelry may have held water -- but in Lynum's view, those days are over. Downtown, she says, now has a more defined character, and the council has taken steps to keep youths out of late-night clubs, which was the original concern. "I don't believe it's going to be an issue much longer," she says.
Other commissioners didn't return Orlando Weekly's calls by press time. (Commissioner Don Ammerman, reached by cell phone on the golf course on a Friday afternoon, didn't want to be disturbed.)
Nejame still hopes to rally the four votes he needs to override Hood's position, and is watching next spring's council elections optimistically.