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Can Ybor get respect in the morning?

[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe 2001]
The Centro Ybor entertainment complex was designed as an alternative to the bars and nightclubs that attract the college crowd. The city hopes older, well-heeled patrons will discover Ybor City by day as well.

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 14, 2002

After a hard night of drinking and dancing, Ybor awakes as a quiet underused neighborhood by day. City leaders hope to change that.

YBOR CITY -- Bill and Kathy Craver sit outside the shops at Centro Ybor on a Thursday in late May.

The time is 10 p.m. The Cravers won't be here long. Soon, they'll be tucked away in a nearby Ybor home.

"We just know when to stay away," Bill Craver says, alluding to the "college night" crowds set to arrive in the coming hour.

The Cravers moved to Ybor 18 months ago, and value its quaintness and historic appeal. Others appreciate something completely different: Ybor's vibrant nightlife.

That combination makes for such an identity crisis that city officials are organizing a panel to define Ybor's image. They hope to kick-start a daytime economy that's never gotten off the ground.
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe ]
Heather Martin, left, and Phernando Cuello enjoy the nightlife, but “people don’t want to spend money to walk around an old town,” Cuello says.

This month, a newly formed Responsible Hospitality Institute will try to set some goals for Ybor. The panel will import two experts who specialize in restructuring entertainment districts.

Joe Amon, chairman of Ybor's chamber, says he envisions a district equally popular with professionals and retailers. To thrive, he says, Ybor must attract more businesses -- not just stores, but doctors' offices and law firms -- and in turn, attract more customers.

Members of the panel include representatives from the Tampa Police Department, the State Attorney's Office, Ybor club and bar owners, chamber members and students from the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa.

Amon says the group must find a way for a day life to coexist with Ybor's night life, a relationship sometimes strained.

Currently, the night life pays the bills.

Cover charges and drink specials fuel the evening establishments, enabling bar owners to afford steep rents along busy Seventh Avenue.

That's not the case for typical daytime retailers, who don't draw crowds by the thousands. As a result, they tend to steer clear of starting businesses in Ybor.

"People don't want to spend money to walk around an old town," says Phernando Cuello, 21.

Leveling the financial score could prove to be difficult. Civic leaders will attempt to lure people to that "old town" by giving them more places to spend their money.

But can the crowds that walk the cobblestone sidewalks, admiring the old Spanish architecture during the day, mix with the crowds that by night skip from dance floor to dance floor, indulging in its wild atmosphere?
[Times photo: John Pendygraft 2001]
An image of crowds struggling to catch beads during the Stumble Parade helps t give Ybor its party reputation. A panel is now working to kick-start a daytime economy that has never gotten off the ground.

Amon thinks so, because, contrary to popular belief, he says, the aged and the young are two crowds that are compatible.

Amon says people often erroneously associate large crowds of young people with danger. He says Ybor is safe. He convinced friends of his a few months ago to visit Ybor late one Saturday night.

What did they learn?

"Come 11 p.m., it's the best people-watching in the world," he says.

Yet some say Ybor's inner turmoil is far more complex than a mixing and matching of demographics.

Kathleen Bambery, general manager for The Green Iguana, points to the past. Years ago, she says, the City Council collectively decided to make Ybor an entertainment district. The council dished out a slew of liquor licenses, many with lax age restrictions that ultimately invite underage drinking.

Bambery, whose club is reserved for those 21 and up, said council members should have foreseen potential consequences, such as underage drinking.

"I think they should have been proactive then, instead of reactive now," she says.

Joe Redner, who owns The Realm and part of Club Hedo, agrees with Bambery, saying officials should have better researched the pitfalls of other districts.

Critics blame more than liquor licenses for Ybor's inebriated image.

They point to the absence of a charming mainstay of entertainment districts: street vendors.

Once, denizens of Ybor sold cigars out of beat-up shopping carts. Others tried to make money by playing music on makeshift plastic-bucket drums outside La France, the vintage clothing store, or elsewhere.

Not everyone saw street vendors as charming. Above La France, residents struggled to sleep.

In the late 1990s, civic leaders banned the vendors, making exceptions for those at street festivals.

They were diminishing Ybor's image, says Annette DeLisle, chamber president.

"It was a disgusting mess," she said.

Redner doesn't see it that way.

He says Ybor got rid of street vendors so Centro Ybor wouldn't have to fear competition. Looking back, he remembers an Ybor akin to Key West's Mallory Square: street vendors, jugglers and tap dancers.
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe ]
Kathy and Bill Craver moved to Ybor City 18 months ago, and value its quaintness and historic appeal. But after 10 p.m. they’ll be home avoiding the party crowd that starts to congregate then and grows through the night.

But that "carnival-like" atmosphere just doesn't work in the already cramped sidewalks of Ybor, Amon says. For him, it's a safety issue.

"If a vendor is on the sidewalk, where are people going to walk? In the street?" Amon asked.

Seventh Avenue is closed to traffic only on Friday and Saturday nights.

Vendors would be more plausible, he says, if Ybor traffic drops after the October debut of a new trolley set to connect Ybor and Channelside.

Other districts have dealt with vendors without getting rid of them completely. Redner points to New Orleans, rich in history and in revelry.

There, the city limited vendor licenses to comply with safety regulations.

For Phillip Kerr, a 29-year-old who has frequented Ybor since he was 19, Ybor's future may rest in its past.

He wants Ybor to go back to the way it was, before the vendors were banished.

He'd like the district's reputation to be based on more than drink specials.

He'd like a return to the street life that once was the soul of Ybor.

His formula sounds like this: Bring back street vendors. Restrict what they sell. Keep minors out of clubs but give them something else to do.

Provide bouncers a hot line to police.

"Every door guy should have a direct link to a cop," Kerr said.

In addition to Ybor's face-scanning surveillance cameras, Kerr said the city should hire people to walk around in plain clothes and use a radio to direct police toward disturbances or suspicious activity.

Billboards and television commercials -- a large marketing campaign to propel Ybor's new image -- are already in the works.

Amon envisions a daytime Ybor of the future, complete with restaurants, comedy clubs, art venues and concert halls, along with service-oriented shops.

He says it can work.

People just need "a good place to come," he says.

They need a "decent meal."

And an "enjoyable afternoon."

Emphasis on the afternoon.

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