Frankie Colt, left, Zachary Lombardo, center, and Aaron Port, right, of Frankie Colt and the Frankie Boys perform at August 2011's Music Walk. / news-press.com file photo
If you go
What: More than a dozen participating businesses feature live music.
Where: Downtown Fort Myers
When: 7 p.m. - close, on the third Friday of every month
What: See a different art show on display in each participating business.
Where: Downtown Fort Myers
When: 6-10 p.m., on the first Friday of every month
Those attending Music Walk tonight in downtown Fort Myers may want to be careful about where they enjoy a drink.
For years, bars and restaurants allowed customers to carry alcoholic drinks off their properties twice a month during Art Walks and Music Walks. Some establishments even provided plastic “to-go” cups for patrons to carry between the live music venues or art galleries set up in participating businesses.
It’s not legal, but Fort Myers police hadn’t done much about it until last month. Since Dec. 7, police have given dozens of warnings and handful of citations for open-container violations. Enforcement has gradually gotten more strict since the first week of December, but Capt. Jim Mulligan would not disclose whether officers will be citing customers tonight.
“I understand everyone is just trying to make some money down there,” Mulligan said. “(Art and Music Walks) are spectacular events, but you have to work within the confines of the law.”
Mulligan said enforcement began after several downtown businesses complained to police about street drinking. He wouldn’t provide names, but said the businesses wanted everyone to operate on an equal playing field and felt some vendors were taking advantage of the situation.
A business with a state license may sell alcohol on an outside patio, but only if the drinks are consumed on the business’ property. Events such as Zombicon and New Year’s Eve are exceptions and allow drinking in the street because the city blocks off downtown to vehicles.
During Art Walk on Dec. 7, police gave warnings to eight businesses that were letting patrons take alcoholic drinks off site. During the next event, Music Walk on Dec. 21, four businesses still not in compliance were given citations and will have to appear in court. Police cited The Indigo Room, The Red Rock Saloon, Space 39 and The Franklin Shops, after undercover officers were allowed to walk off carrying drinks.
Police then turned their efforts to customers. During Art Walk on Jan. 4, they gave 87 verbal warnings to people walking with drinks. Another 35 approached officers with questions about the law, said Fort Myers Police Department spokeswoman Shelly Flynn. Police gave citations to two people who tried to hide their drinks and argued with officers.
The Franklin Shops on First Street received a citation Dec. 21 for something part-owner Margarethe Thye-Miville said her employees couldn’t have prevented.
An undercover officer bought a drink from the business Dec. 21, then carried it off the property, Thye-Miville said. The bartender, Tony Weeks, said he told all his customers that night to remain on the property with their drinks, and even pointed to a new sign at the bar that explained the law.
“I can’t chase after them,” Weeks said.
Mulligan said businesses written up Dec. 21 violated a Florida law mandating they only sell alcohol in compliance with their licenses. Servers who violate the license could face up to 60 days in jail and a fine of up to $500 for the second-degree misdemeanor.
Police cited The Indigo Room on Main Street on Dec. 21, after an undercover officer bought a drink at the bar and carried it off the property. Owner Raimond Aulen said his business didn’t break the law. The bartender told all patrons to stay on the property with their drinks that night, and a sign posted outside says the same — so the bar was in compliance with its license, he said.
“They’re trying to stick the business owner with those citations,” Aulen said, “when it really should go to the person walking around.”
Aulen said he will fight the citation in court.
Mulligan said undercover officers were not warned against taking drinks off business’ properties.
“If our officers were told that,” he said, “they wouldn’t have taken (the drink) off the property. They did not get confronted, they did not get challenged. They clearly walked off the property unimpeded.”
A sign posted at an establishment warning patrons of the law isn’t good enough because people might not see it, Mulligan said. But it is not necessary to warn every patron who buys a drink. If a bartender is attentive, he or see should notice someone leaving the property with a drink and warn the customer to stop. After that warning, the blame lies with the customer, Mulligan said.
The Franklin Shops on First Street did not plan to set up its outside bar tonight, for fear of again running afoul of the newly enforced law.
“Our sales are going to drop,” bartender Weeks said. “My tips are definitely affected.”
The only legal way to allow drinking on the street is to close the area to traffic during art and music walks, Mulligan said. That could cost several hundred dollars an event, depending on how many roads are closed. Zombicon, for example, paid the city $624 to close roads downtown during its October event, according to Dawn Fellows, permit coordinator for the Fort Myers engineering department. Representatives of several downtown businesses said they would be willing to chip in to make that happen for art and music walks.
Mulligan said police are concerned with the potential for pedestrian-involved traffic crashes during Art Walk and Music Walk — a danger that could be mitigated by closing the streets.
Jamie Kuser, who co-chairs Art Walk, said he opposes blocking off the streets because it wouldn’t encourage people to patronize local businesses — which is the whole point of the events that bring 1,500 to 2,000 downtown every two weeks.
“It’s not a street party,” he said, noting, “Art Walk is not about alcohol.”
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