A rendering of the Island Breeze Tiki Bar, approved by the City Commission on Monday, April 17, 2023. | Provided Photo

Soloman Wassef’s dream of opening a tiki bar in downtown Lakeland is one step closer to reality. The Lakeland City Commission voted unanimously on Monday to grant a conditional use permit for the proposed Island Breeze bar, located under his already existing Lakeland Loft.

“I cannot be more proud to be in Lakeland than in any other city,” Wassef said just before the vote.

As Lakeland continues its transformation of the areas in and around Munn Park, various boards and officials are weighing how to nurture downtown nightlife while avoiding pitfalls that other municipalities have encountered.

The Lakeland Downtown Development Authority held a board retreat recently to discuss everything from the number of bars that downtown can support to how often streets should be closed and the best ways to prevent rowdy behavior.

LDDA Director Julie Townsend sent out a survey recently to downtown business owners, with 34 responding. Among the most popular ideas, were:

  • More public events like First Fridays
  • A daytime shuttle like The Squeeze for area residents
  • Valet parking
  • Beautification of the sidewalks
  • Staff to ensure a clean and safe environment
  • And a police presence to prevent panhandling and bad behavior

The survey also asked about street closures.

A pedestrian-only street?

Lakelanders are accustomed to having streets downtown closed for special events, which raised the question: Should there be a permanent pedestrian mall along one of the four sides of Munn Park?

“The majority of people who responded were in favor of closing the streets,” Townsend said.

But Townsend cautioned the board because her research showed that, of the 200 streets converted to pedestrian malls by 1980 in the United States, only 24 remained 20 years later. Townsend said experts have studied why those 24 succeeded when 176 failed and they found four factors:

  • A younger demographic;
  • A destination within walking distance like a beach, river or lakeshore;
  • A nearby population density;
  • And a smaller area closed off.
Lights strug over downtown streets in 2021 have been popular, adding character and charm. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Townsend said closing off Kentucky Avenue or Kentucky and Tennessee avenues and Main Street around Munn Park would create a more pedestrian friendly venue and would be attractive if planned properly. Businesses could have kiosks along the walkways to help pull people into their shops and more outdoor seating could be provided.

But, she said Lakeland does not meet the four criteria of success the experts point to.

Townsend said the median age in Lakeland is 40, even though the town has Florida Southern College, Southeastern University and Polk State College/University of South Florida. But most of those students are younger than 21 and too young to drink at local bars.

“I don’t consider us a college town – I think of tens of thousands of students as a college town,” Townsend said.

In addition, she said there isn’t a place people would consider a large destination within walking distance. And, despite NoBay and Mirrorton being built in the last decade, downtown doesn’t have a large, concentrated population density.

Finally, she said there are state open-container laws that prohibit patrons walking from bar to bar with a drink in their hand, like in New Orleans.

“They’re speaking from an emotional standpoint,” Townsend said of the business owners who would like to see street closures.

Valerie Ferrell, the director of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, cautioned that closed off streets can actually be bad for business.

“Maintaining a closed street and activating a closed street is like a darkened storefront — you have to have activity,” Ferrell said. “When people are walking down the sidewalk, where they might be drawn into a business, walking down the street … there’s nothing to bring them in.”

Lakeland leaders want to strike the right balance between vibrant nightlife and a safe, family-friendly downtown. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

How many bars is too many?

The Island Breeze Tiki Bar, at the corner of Main Street and Tennessee Avenue, will be an open-air establishment, providing a more laid-back atmosphere than The Loft’s upstairs jazz and cigar club vibe.

But Wassef’s application for a conditional use permit, which was supported by the LDDA and the Planning and Zoning Board, prompted some officials to wonder: How many bars is too many bars?

Townsend said when she came on board the LDDA in 2010, there were six bars open until 2 a.m.: Linksters Taproom, Molly McHugh’s Irish Pub, Socialite, Preservation Hall, Hurricane Alley and the Hookah Palace.

“This was before the residential boom,” Townsend said.

Now, there are five that stay open until 2 a.m., including Linksters and Molly’s.  Added to that are Revival, Lakeland Loft, and The Rec Room. 

Dissent, an IPA beer bar, recently opened on Kentucky Avenue and Swan Brewing is within walking distance, but they close at 10 p.m.

Townsend explained that there is a conditional use permit for downtown bars and restaurants because of proximity to sensitive uses and an ability to control impact.

“I think if the conditions are cookie cutter, then they don’t really have any teeth to them. They should be individualized to that particular location,” Townsend said. “You should be open at a certain time, if you have a certain square footage, you should be required to have security – those are things we could put into the conditions.”

She said in recent years, the LDDA has not denied a single applicant, but approval is not assured. The LDDA has an extensive process to vet applicants, including:

  • Do you have experience running a bar?
  • For how long?
  • Do you have any other successful businesses we can look at?
  • What is your business plan?

“You don’t want to go with someone who says, ‘I just like making cocktails at home and I thought I’d open a bar,’ but they don’t know how to make it successful,” Townsend said.  “I think we don’t want proprietors who are going to have all-you-can-drink Thursdays.  I think that’s a flag of not being a good proprietor. That signals to me that’s not the kind of business proprietor we would want downtown. If the bar owner can’t make the kind of money they need to make, that might not be good for the rest of us.  That might include over-serving or drink specials.”

She held up as a good example Jeannie Weaver, part owner of Revival, a more upscale bar with craft cocktails.  She worked for years at Linksters and decided to branch out on her own.

Teresa Maio, assistant director of community development, pointed to several bars in the past, including The 210 Club on North Pine Street, that didn’t obey laws and didn’t encourage patrons to go home when they closed. Instead they lingered in the parking lot and fights broke out.

“There was so much discussion on this in the past … that discussion was the result of a couple of bad actors,” Maio said.

Michael Kincart, an attorney with Peterson Myers, cautioned the board to be careful about trying to micromanage businesses. He said the bad ones wind up closing their doors because of bad management.

“I don’t like us, as any governing body, getting too involved in saying how to run your business,” Kincart said.  “I think we should have restrictions on bars to the extent ‘You have to close by this time, you can’t spill over into the streets … versus this bar can do this, this bar can do that.’ … We’re in a downtown area and there’s going to be issues. Look at this list – the good ones survived, the bad ones didn’t. I like that we can put faith into (it).”

Policing bars and training bartenders

Eric Belvin, part owner of Linkster’s, said he started out as a bartender at Bennigan’s on South Florida Avenue before going to Linksters.

“I’ve probably served everyone of you,” he said smiling.

Belvin added that one of his business partners now does training of bar staff throughout the state on how to be a successful bar, including not over-serving, not allowing illegal behavior, making sure patrons leave the area when the business closes, making sure you’re not serving underage patrons, and providing security – especially for special nights when crowds gather. 

He said the state doesn’t require those classes, but a certificate can one could mean the difference between being successfully sued and having a lawsuit thrown out in court.

“If there’s an incident that they say there’s no training, he can say, ‘I personally was in that training and here’s a list of people in that class,’” Belvin said. “Maybe have them every year – maybe it’s a pain but if that’s what it takes.”

Lt. Joe Parker, who is in charge of policing downtown, asked what keeps 150 college students from showing up at Linksters.

“Price point – normally they’re going to go find the cheapest place they can drink,” Belvin said, adding that some bar owners “kind of turn a blind eye to ‘Lemme see your ID.’ … Our bartenders can card anybody they want at any time.  There are places that, if you get too intoxicated, they put you in the corner and just keep going.  We’re not going to serve you anymore.”

Parker said he’d like to see bar owners post and enforce rules – or he and his officers will enforce laws.

“The size, the level of loud music, the fighting, the brawling – others will trespass them from their property,” Parker said.  “A lot of bars have dress codes, the ratio of men to women is controlled in bars.”

Belvin said when he first opened, they would have a police officer walking around, talking to the patrons.

“The people that don’t want you in there, that’s a problem from the get go,” Belvin said.

Musick noted the number of police officers he saw when walking around downtown Savannah recently, which has a robust night life and often crowded bars.  He said for Lakeland Police to staff multiple officers downtown would add hundreds of thousands of dollars in the budget.  Others said business owners could contribute to that fund, and Belvin added those costs would eventually be passed on to customers.

“We’ll have places that are busy and open and we don’t get calls there,” Parker said.  “It’s where it’s spilling out and we’re getting calls.  If they can self-regulate, that’s great.”

Townsend said she could talk with the city commission about possibly creating a set of universal regulations based on the best practices for ownership and operation of a bar, but the LDDA would not want to see a finite cap on the number of bars.

Stuart Simm, who owned Federal Bar until a few months ago when his lease ran out, spoke at Monday’s City Commission meeting. Simm had planned to turn an old chapel on Massachusetts Avenue into a bar, but photos taken by his bartenders of them in sexy nun costumes angered some people in the conservative community and the proposal was voted down.

“What I would urge you all to do as you move forward is to look at new projects without emotional, political bias,” Simm said. “Make sure it’s really a good fit for the community and look at the long-term growth of any of those projects and not necessarily that specific one … I just want to make sure moving forward that we do look at the overall growth and all that private investment that we might be saying ‘no’ to.”

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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