It’s 10 o’clock on a Friday night. The sidewalks are mostly empty. People drink wine in low-lit bars, but for the most part it seems like everyone has gone home. This is Winter Park’s Park Avenue, a scene for the business-casual set looking for a quiet night out. The only establishment with a crowd is a Middle Eastern restaurant and bar, from which music drifts out onto the dark street. To emphasize what kind of crowd they want, the restaurant has a “smart dress code” sign out front. (Restaurant dress codes have faced plenty of criticism for the prejudiced ways in which they’re enforced.)
Cut to downtown Orlando. The streets are cordoned off, as at a music festival or a street fair. People are dancing in clubs, bar-hopping. Maybe not everyone is in compliance with a Park Ave-style dress code, but they’re still dressed up and looking for a good time. They’re decades younger, too. Later, they’ll get rowdier and a few will likely be found puking off the curb of Orange Avenue. So it goes.
But it’s also important to note the diversity of options happening here. Some have come for a show at the Social or the Beacham. Others are dancing on Wall Street or drinking in the mood-lighting of Ann Teague’s Lamp Supply. Still more are playing arcade games at 1-Up on Church Street. If they’re feeling spooky, perhaps they’re enjoying (haunted) craft drinks at Cocktails & Screams. The list goes on.
Yet under two proposed ordinances from the Orlando City Council, downtown could look more like that posh, quiet Park Avenue scene. In theory, at least.
“The early evening is when the business crowd takes their clients who are either in town or coming to town out for a nice dinner,” Commissioner Jim Gray told Orlando Weekly of other downtowns. Gray is one of the most vocal proponents of making changes to the city’s center. “Everybody has a nice dinner, a bottle or two of wine, everybody’s happy, you’ve done some business.”
Gray says downtown Orlando’s unsafe reputation is keeping these sorts of upscale dinner options, as well as retail and other businesses, out of the area. So he and the rest of the council want to do something about it.
On March 20, City Council members will hold the second reading of two ordinances that could dramatically change downtown. The first would prohibit new nightclubs from opening in the area for six months, with the option of extending the order for another six months. If approved, it would go into effect immediately.
The other ordinance is more drastic. It would require businesses that sell booze after midnight on the weekends to purchase a $250 permit. The permit would require full liquor establishments to hire off-duty OPD officers at $90 an hour from 10:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The number of officers required would vary depending on the bar’s or club’s occupancy limit. It also requires wanding for weapons and identification scanners at the door.
The new requirements will cost some businesses tens of thousands of dollars — if they can afford it at all. The city says it’s necessary to keep downtown safe and because it’s spending too much to police the area on weekend nights.
Orlando, like cities across the country, has seen a spike in gun violence and deaths since the pandemic began. The CDC found nationally the homicide rate jumped 30% between 2019 and 2020. Informal data comparing 2021 to the first nine months of 2022 found homicides leapt from 31 to 40 in Orlando. For comparison, Tampa saw its murder rate increase from 43 to 48 over that period. (Unfortunately, Florida lawmakers are considering bills this session that could allow for the permitless or open carry of firearms, likely making it harder for these cities to reduce gun violence.)
But unlike many other cities, Orlando received nationwide media scrutiny after seven people were injured in a shooting downtown last summer. The city immediately installed checkpoints at the entrance to Wall Street Plaza, where the shooting took place.
City officials and business owners agree that safety is a concern. Results from the City District’s Downtown Safety Survey from February show the public agrees, too — 83% of respondents said they felt unsafe or very unsafe between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Less clear is who to blame for the lack of safety. In the survey, 41% said a combination of the City of Orlando, businesses and patrons.
Dominique Greco, executive director of the Orlando Hospitality Alliance, tells Orlando Weekly the city is putting too much of the onus on nightclubs and bars.
“Why do they want less nightlife?” Greco asked. “They have yet to really justify that and show us any correlation between crime. They just keep saying crime, crime, crime.”
THE ORDINANCE EVOLVES
The after-midnight alcohol permit’s details have been in flux since its introduction at the Jan. 23 city council meeting. The city has held three stakeholders meetings since then, including one on March 8 — the last before the council’s March 20 vote on the ordinance. Even at that meeting, its particulars were being hashed out in real time.
The latest version caps many of the costs of the original proposal, but includes more bars. Whereas the original required off-duty police at establishments with an occupancy of 150 or more, the current proposal puts the threshold at 125 or more. The city says this would affect about 40 businesses. It reduced the number of tiers for larger bars and clubs as well, from five to four. Establishments with occupancies of 125 to 374 require one officer, 375 to 624 require two, and 625 or greater require three. Five bars fit into the largest tier.
Under the current proposal, the city estimates it will cost establishments in the middle tier $530 per night on the nights the after hours permit is required — Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Penciling out the math for this middle tier, the annual bill to pay for two off-duty officers amounts to $82,680.
As the Orlando Hospitality Alliance’s Greco points out, many of these officers are doing this work on top of their regular jobs. “We’re being mandated to pay these tired officers that are oftentimes very, kind of, resentful about this particular shift,” Greco told Orlando Weekly. “Because obviously a lot of stuff does go on downtown.”
The March 8 stakeholders meeting also grew contentious over the city’s permit suspension and revocation process. Although the city had eliminated many of the potential violations from its first proposal, questions remained about what would happen if a business willingly reported a crime, such as selling drugs, to the police. After discussion, officials changed their original stance and decided this would not be considered a violation.
The city made other changes to accommodate businesses as well. It scrapped an original idea to require walk-through metal detectors and private security for certain establishments. And the council plans to review the ordinance 18 months after it goes into effect, which is scheduled for May 1 if it passes.
A (SHORT) HISTORY OF DISCORD
If it seems like we’ve been here before, writing about city ordinances to clamp down on downtown nightlife — we have. This isn’t the first time city leaders have tried to impose potentially wrongheaded restrictions on businesses in the city’s center. Back in 1997, the same year that Rolling Stone called Orlando the “Seattle of electronica” for its pioneering breaks sound and named Club Firestone the best dance club in the Southeast, the City of Orlando passed a controversial “rave ban,” which forced nightclubs — especially downtown hotspots like the Edge, Firestone and the Beacham — to close their doors at 3 a.m. The ordinance, in the words of Orlando Weekly writer Jason Ferguson, initiated a crackdown that eviscerated a major subculture in mid-stride.
Then in 2013, another so-called nightlife ordinance was proposed under the fig-leaf of extending drinking hours downtown from 2 a.m. to a 3 a.m. cutoff. But a whole host of new restrictions came with it: businesses would have been forced to purchase identification scanners, hire off-duty cops, pull permits and staff appropriately for the potentially larger crowds, and live venues would have to purchase a separate permit for each all-ages show they hosted. (Sound familiar?) The ordinance was roundly opposed by downtown establishments — and those of surrounding neighborhoods — and died an ignominious death during a contentious City Council meeting.
“It seems like every few years the city imposes new regulations that only make things worse,” said DJ BMF, a longtime Orlando DJ who remembers well the previous battles over nightlife ordinances, to Orlando Weekly. “It’s always the people who would never go out late night downtown that think they have the solutions.”
A decade later, the friction between the city and downtown business owners has been reignited with the current proposal.
It was palpable when the council first read through — and unanimously passed — the after-midnight alcohol permit ordinance at its Jan. 23 meeting. During public comments, business owners expressed dismay that the ordinance had been sprung on them only days before.
“We should be working together with city staff,” Beacham co-owner John SanFelippo said at the meeting. “We shouldn’t have to show up to a meeting and be pushed into a direction that’s probably unnecessary.”
After rounds of criticism, an obviously peeved Commissioner Gray took to the microphone with a prepared statement. “I continue to hear lines like ‘give us time to work on a solution with you,’ and ‘this is too expensive, we’re gonna go out of business.’ My response is simply, where have you been for the last several years? If you didn’t see this environment deteriorating, see the shootings and continual fights and didn’t expect changes, I suggest you’re either tone-deaf or in denial.”
“I took it sideways, as more of an insult,” said Scott Kotroba, who owns Bullitt Bar, McQueens Social Lounge and other bars downtown, of Gray’s comments. “Because he questioned our ability to be proper business people.”
Although it will depend on the final ordinance, Kotroba says he and other bar owners have considered their legal options. He emphasizes that this is not a path he would like to take, but says these businesses are his livelihood.
Respect for the people visiting downtown was another topic at the January meeting. Although she voted in support of the ordinance, Commissioner Regina Hill took exception to the fact that some city staff members had referred to the downtown crowd as “undesirables.”
“For me, as a Black female, I feel some kind of way because when I go downtown, I see — yes, I do see a change of downtown,” Hill said. “And it’s young folk — majority in the evening — and Black and Brown people, meaning Latino and African American or Caribbean American or what have you. So are those the undesirables we speak of?”
“[Nightlife] also is notoriously an industry that really is a refuge to marginalized people — BIPOC, immigrants,” Greco pointed out.
While the commissioners seem set on making changes to the area — or rehabilitating it, in their eyes — downtown Orlando already serves a diversity of needs and interests.
“Downtown safety is a rightful concern right now, but, historically, City Hall’s handling of nightlife has been a knee-jerk reaction from on high,” Orlando Weekly‘s live music columnist Bao Le-Huu said. “If they want a flourishing downtown — and we all do — they need to pursue solutions that aren’t just community-minded, but community-driven as well.”
Even before the ordinance’s passage, bars and clubs are considering their exit from downtown. But running them out isn’t the same as revitalization. There’s no guarantee that passing this ordinance will change downtown Orlando in the way the city’s leaders want it to change.
Additional reporting by Matthew Moyer.