Booze blunders: City Commission wants to up downtown safety with strategic plan

The city commission cited police data showing that calls between 11:30 p.m. and 4 a.m. for battery, noise, disorderly conduct, DUI and intoxicated persons has risen almost 100 percent since alcohol sale hours were extended to 2.a.m. in 2010.

By Katherine Hamilton |

As downtown St. Augustine’s popularity has grown with those seeking out a more boisterous nightlife and late-night music, the St. Augustine City Commission has begun looking at safety concerns, as alcohol-related crimes have risen recently.

City Manager John Regan led a townhall-style meeting in the Alcazar Room at the Lightner Museum on Sept. 25 where residents and local bar and restaurant owners could share their ideas and concerns for the Quality of Night Life Strategic Plan – and the upcoming legislation regulating the sale of alcohol.

“All [the growth] is wonderful, and we want to be able to support that. The city itself though, hasn’t changed with the community,” Regan said during the meeting.

To curtail the rise in alcohol-related incidents and overall improve the cleanliness and safety of downtown, a five-point plan – excluding the looming new alcohol legislation – has already been put into action, accounting for $280,000 of a $60 million-dollar budget.

The plan includes increasing police presence, additional street cleaning and litter crews, urban design improvements and a ride-share hub with drop-off locations. Updates such as solar-powered compact garbage cans and lighting assessments for darker streets are just a few examples of ways the city plans to improve nightlife quality. 

The city’s concern for safety can be correlated with three incidents in 2019. Just recently, on Sept. 16, a man was stabbed multiple times on Hypolita Street near Scarlett O’Hara’s at about 1:40 a.m. There was also a gun shot outside Carmelo’s Marketplace and a gun shot outside of No Name Bar in April. While no one was harmed at Carmelo’s Marketplace, two people had minor injuries from shrapnel at No Name Bar.

The city correlates the recent spike in alcohol-related incidents with St. Johns County alcohol sale legislation; in 2010, the sale of alcohol was raised to cap off at 2 a.m. instead of midnight. The city commission cited police data showing that calls between 11:30 p.m. and 4 a.m. for battery, noise, disorderly conduct, DUI and intoxicated persons has risen almost 100 percent since the hours were extended.

“Those numbers have grown pretty dramatically since the bar [alcohol sale time] changed,” said Chief of Police, Barry Fox, of the St. Augustine Police Department.

The City of St. Augustine is also separated into four zones – the area with a dense collection of establishments with liquor licenses, Zone 1, is responsible for 47 percent of calls to the St. Augustine Police Department, according to police data cited by the city commission. Currently, the downtown area contains around 95 active liquor licenses, Fox said.

“Really, it’s about how successful everybody has been in reference to what you do – TDC [Tourist Development Council], Visitor’s Information, the businesses themselves – but we’ve come to a point now where we’ve got to address some things,” Fox said to residents and vendors attending the meeting.

While no legislation has been formally written, Regan did speculate about a possible cut-off time for alcohol sales at 11 p.m. The city would then require a special permit for businesses to continue selling alcohol after the proposed time.

“I would lose about 45 percent of my income,” said Zach Ramsey, who works as a bartender at Odd Birds bar in downtown St. Augustine. “And most of us, if you don’t work the late night, get off at 11 p.m. So what? We can’t have a drink after work?”

Many of the complaints from residents had to do with the amount of noise from not only the bar scene, but also the growing live music scene downtown. Jeanetta Salyer, St. Augustine local and front woman for Ramona the Band, noted how unique downtown is; residents’ houses are back to back with noisy bars.

“I obviously make my money between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m.,” Salyer said. “It won’t ever work. This is a college town, and this is a place people come for live music. They’re here to have fun. I think that you can have fun responsibly.”

But for nearby residents, the growing dangers combined with the racket from buzzed crowds and amplified music is exactly why they are in support of rolling the hours forward.

“It’s not safe for the people – like when somebody is so drunk, and they fall flat on their face,” said Nancy Pellicer, a resident born and raised in St. Augustine who moved back to town in 2007 before the alcohol sale hours were changed. She lives off Cuna Street and often hears rambunctious weekend activities.

While four parts of the five-part plan have already been put into action, the legislation won’t be formally composed before Nights of Lights, a lighting display in the town square which will run from November 23, 2019 to January 31, 2020.

“So we’re still working on [the legislation], and feel that that’s been a big issue for the business community — making sure that the city doesn’t do something that upsets fundamental business models,” Regan said.

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