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What's the matter with Ybor?

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By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer

Published July 23, 2004

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Pat Shea of Hong Kong, walking by the Blue Shark with husband Jack, smiles at drummer Kevin McNary an hour before the street would close to traffic, much to bar owner George Wilds

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Teenagers: What's bugging Ybor?

For a tavern owner, it's the roving bands of teenagers. But his hope to entice more mature faces - and thicker wallets - faces challenges.

SHERRI DAY

Published July 23, 2004

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Desiree Banks, a promoter for several Ybor dance clubs, tries to lure patrons to Empire last week. Banks, who turned 19 today, admits that she spends no money in Ybor eating out or shopping, just a bit on clubbing.

YBOR CITY - In Brian Cornacchia's dreams, Thursday nights bustle at the Big City Tavern.

By 10 p.m., the bar is full. Dining room patrons finish their meals, while moviegoers sit down for aftertheater treats.

And then Cornacchia, who owns the place, wakes up.

On a recent Thursday night at Big City Tavern, there were only six patrons in the 240-seat restaurant shortly after 10 p.m. Cornacchia said teenagers, who spill onto Ybor City's streets from the district's dance clubs, are driving away his target audience.

"If you're an adult, young professional from 25 to 55 with disposable income, are you going to come down to an area that caters to teenagers?" Cornacchia said. "Of course you're not. There's unquestionably no doubt in my mind that I have lost business because of the teenagers on this block. It's the No. 1 complaint of my customers."

Hoping to reclaim the area for an older, more sophisticated clientele, Cornacchia has started a campaign to raise the entrance age of Ybor City's dance clubs and bars from 18 to 21. Cornacchia said a higher age requirement would help keep teens, who he estimates spend little money in restaurants and shops, off the streets.

A teen-free Ybor City, Cornacchia said, should make the area more attractive to adults who have been lured to Channelside, SoHo, International Plaza and BayWalk. But his proposed city ordinance faces stiff opposition from teens and club owners.

"The customer that I market to does not adversely affect the businesses that are attracting the kids," Cornacchia said. "On the contrary, the marketing strategies and the promotion by the teenage clubs are surely eroding my business. It's an unfair balance."

This is not the first time an age ordinance has been proposed. In 2002, the Tampa Alcohol Coalition, formerly the Alcohol Prevention Task Force, asked the City Council to restrict access to bars and clubs to people who are at least 21.

Ellen Snelling, the coalition's co-chairwoman, said the group was primarily concerned with curbing underage drinking. But efforts stalled as they waited to see how a challenge to similar ordinance would fare in Fort Lauderdale, which had raised its club entrance age from 18 to 21. Fort Myers, West Palm Beach and Miami have enacted similar ordinances.

Early last year, Mayor Pam Iorio, who has long considered teens a problem in Ybor, began meeting with other city officials to discuss the creation of an ordinance keeping teens out of clubs. But Iorio said last week the city decided not to move forward with an ordinance because of complications with enforcement, liquor licensing and zoning regulations.

Still the mayor said that Cornacchia need not be discouraged.

"Nothing is ever a dead issue," Iorio said. "I'm saying right now we've hit a wall with it. But if there is strong support for it and the Ybor community would like to see it done, we can continue to explore ways in which we could achieve it."

For now, Cornacchia is trying to rally other restaurateurs, small-business owners and residents in Ybor City. He plans to circulate a petition and create a Web site detailing his proposal. He has won support from owners of Samurai Blue, Bernini's and retail shops, and managers of neighboring apartment complexes, he said.

John Schall, who owns Dish, the restaurant, said he would favor raising the clubs' entrance age if that attracted older patrons to the area. But he stopped short of discouraging teens in Ybor.

"It's not about not wanting the 18- to 20-year-olds here," Schall said. "It's about wanting the 25- to 75-year-olds here as well. And in order to get to the 25- to 75-year-olds as well, you have to work hard at changing the false perception of Ybor as only a place for teenagers, because it's not true."

Carmine Iavarone, who owns Carmine's, is not sure changing the rules would serve him well. Business at his restaurant has not declined with the influx of teens, he said.

"You know we have these problems, but overall they're problems because we're in a good area and there's people here," Iavarone said. "That's why it concerns me when someone says let's change a rule that's been around for a long time."

Ybor's club owners largely oppose any change to the age requirement. While clubs profit from selling alcohol to patrons who are at least 21, they also make money by charging admission fees. An ordinance that bars 18- to 20-year-olds could be devastating, club owners said.

"It'll put several businesses out of business, and it'll force the other businesses to operate unscrupulously," said John Santoro, 34, who owns two Ybor City clubs, the Amphitheater and Club Hedo. "People like us with good operating procedures will suffer in the long run."

Santoro said he fears that if the City Council boosts the age for clubs in Ybor City, teens will flock to unsupervised parties and be susceptible to underage drinking and drug use.

Several teens waiting to get into clubs on a recent Thursday night scoffed at the suggestion that their presence could hurt business owners' profits. They also vociferously opposed any change to the clubs' admissions policies.

Rosie Odom, a Temple Terrace 18-year-old bound for club Fuel, worried that she would have few places to party if Ybor was removed from her dance card.

But Desiree Banks, a 19-year-old party promoter for several Ybor dance clubs, said she could see both sides of the issue.

Other than clubs, she said she spends little money in Ybor.

"I've never come down here to eat dinner," she said, pausing between pitches to passers-by at the Empire dance club. "I hear they even have shopping."

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You can bump and grind at the Amphitheater if you

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