Clearwater gives beach bar owners 6 months to crack down on rowdy behavior

No alcohol is allowed on the beaches of Clearwater, but booze is becoming a problem in the surrounding area. City leaders said they have worked hard on Clearwater Beach’s family-friendly brand, and a growing number of disturbances is threatening to tarnish that brand.

CLEARWATER — City Council members concerned about the future and brand of Clearwater Beach delivered a stern warning to bar owners Jan. 21: You have six months to cut down on the late-night rowdy behavior or you’ll pay the price.

That price would be losing two hours of alcohol sales from 1 to 3 a.m.

The move was proposed by Police Chief Dan Slaughter, who said the department had seen an increase in calls for service and complaints regarding late-night activity in the areas of Clearwater Beach, Sand Key, and Island Estates.

“I’m concerned about the long-game here and what Clearwater Beach will look like in five to 10 years if this alcohol atmosphere expands,” Slaughter said Jan. 19 during a council work session.

Slaughter said calls for service in other areas of the city taper off significantly after midnight. In the beach district, however, the call volume remains steady until 3 a.m.

According to the proposed ordinance, an analysis conducted between Aug. 14, 2017, and Sept. 14, 2020, showed a total of 12,978 service calls in that district, with 2,432 of them between midnight and 3 a.m.

Of those calls, 815 were for noise complaints, 755 were for intoxicated pedestrians, and 446 were for DUI.

Hibbard said the city has spent decades building a family-friendly brand for Clearwater Beach, and the late-night activity is beginning to tarnish it.

Damaging that reputation could affect the entire city, he added, because the beach is the city’s economic engine.

“It is the golden goose, and you do not want to lose the goose. You don’t cut down the money tree,” he said. “And that’s what’s concerning to me is I think we’re losing that family friendly atmosphere.”

On Jan. 19, Vice Mayor David Allbritton recommended giving the bars three months to prove they can self-police.

During the council’s regular meeting Jan. 21, Slaughter said at least six months would be needed to allow them to put measures in place and to gauge the impact.

Council members voted 4-1 to give them the six months. Council member Mark Bunker voted no, citing a lack of plans from bar owners. Hibbard said the six months could be shorter if progress isn’t made.

“But understand, there better be change,” he said to some of the bar owners in the audience. “Otherwise, in six months, I don’t really care what the excuses are. I’ll be ready to pull it back to 1 o’clock, and I don’t want to have to do that.”

Paul Andrews, general manager of Shepard’s Beach Resort, said the message has been received and plans are already underway.

He said owners are working on building a coalition to enhance communication and share best practices, such as implementing alcohol intervention training programs provided by the state.

He added more details were forthcoming once the owners were on the same page.

“I think you’re going to be surprised,” he said.

Council member Hoyt Hamilton, owner of the Palm Pavilion on Clearwater Beach, said he has respect for the way Shephard’s has improved its practices over the years, but he is concerned about new owners and the proliferation of bars.

“Some of the new people, when they open the doors, it’s all about making money,” he said. “And when you get that kind of atmosphere going out there, the good stuff goes out the window, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

He, too, has heard people say the beach isn’t a family-friendly place anymore, and the issue “scares the bejeebies out of me,” he said, adding how easy it is now for video of a drunken fight to go viral.

Hibbard said he understands not all the bars are the source of the problem, but they all need to come together, see the big picture, and start self-policing.

He added the beach’s prized brand was hard-fought and he has no intention of giving it up.

“I think this is getting the message across that it’s not going to be tolerated,” he said. “And we’re not going to let these particular businesses screw up the beach. At least I’m not. And if we have to take action, we will.”