Protesters demonstrate against liquor ban in Miami Beach
As protesters demonstrated outside City Hall, Miami Beach commissioners on Tuesday delayed discussion of a new economic impact study that was set to throw gasoline into the fiery debate over whether Miami Beach should roll back the hours of alcohol sales at high-profile bars on Ocean Drive.
Although the question of changing last call at Ocean Drive bars is on the Nov. 7 ballot, the commission won’t discuss the study before Election Day.
The city administration commissioned the economic impact study from Florida International University to forecast what would happen if voters approve a referendum shortening the hours of alcohol sales for outdoor venues on Ocean Drive. Commissioners were scheduled to discuss the study Tuesday but deferred the item until Dec. 13 as hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside City Hall and packed the commission chambers.
Organizers said the crowd was primarily made up of employees of Ocean Drive businesses, including several from the Clevelander, wearing blue and white T-shirts that urged voters to oppose the referendum.
The crowd booed the announcement that the discussion had been postponed, and one audience member called the commission “cowards.” The large crowd left the meeting shortly after.
“Why are they keeping the voters in the dark about this very important vote that will impact the entire city?” said Ceci Velasco, interim director of the Ocean Drive Association. “To take it off the agenda is not responsible and it is a betrayal of the public trust.”
The decision to approve the $85,000 study by FIU’s Metropolitan Center came just days before the beginning of early voting and three weeks before Election Day, Nov. 7.
Bars and clubs on Ocean Drive have launched a campaign urging residents to vote down the referendum, saying it will hurt the local tourism economy. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Federation commissioned a study that predicts a loss of $11 million in resort taxes to the city each year.
The FIU study reaches a markedly different conclusion. It estimates that the tax impact on the city would be minimal, as customers would likely just purchase alcohol in other parts of the city. The Metropolitan Center predicts a decline in sales ranging from $2.6 to $9 million and a loss of resort taxes between $51,959 and $173,198.
Commissioner Ricky Arriola said that city leaders wanted to avoid a “circus” and didn’t think the presentation would have changed the crowd’s opinion.
“The FIU study is out in the public realm. I think the FIU study was pretty self-explanatory,” Arriola said.
Among the protesters was Eric Portillo, a supervisor who trains new hospitality staff at the Clevelander. He said he fears a rollback from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. would lead to the loss of many jobs, including his. He added that guests from afar come looking for an experience on Ocean Drive that includes staying out late to have drinks in a beachside setting.
“Without that, it loses its value,” he said. “It defeats the purpose of tourism.”
The study commissioned by the restaurant association and done by Florida economist Henry Fishkind forecasts broader negative impacts across the Beach’s tourism industry.
“If implemented, the ban would result in a loss of 5,500 employees, mostly in Miami Beach at the directly affected nightclubs, and at restaurants and hotels. It is likely that some of these businesses would be forced to close because of the ban,” Fishkind wrote in an email to city leaders.
Figures presented by Mayor Philip Levine, who initially proposed the rollback, said that only about $619,000 would be lost in resort tax revenue.
The thinking behind this most recent proposal for ending alcohol sales at 2 a.m. is crime during this past Memorial Day weekend, most notably an argument over a parking spot that eventually led to two men being killed — one by a Miami Beach police officer.
Supporters of the ballot item think that reeling back the revelry on Ocean Drive will prevent similar incidents — although the Memorial Day shooting occurred away from the street and at about 10:30 p.m. Many residents also simply want to curb drunken buffoonery on Ocean Drive in the late night hours. Some see the referendum as a possible springboard to rolling back alcohol sales elsewhere in the city.
FIU’s study said that that potential reduction in crime, from 2 to 5 a.m., would be “nominal at best.”
Ocean Drive businesses also think that the 29 recommendations of a 2015 task force, including things like more lighting on side streets and heavier police presence, need more time to bear fruit before changing the hours of alcohol sales.
Carlos Valdes, a barback and bartender who works at establishments on the west side of South Beach, several blocks away from Ocean Drive, came out to support colleagues in the hospitality industry who make their living in the nightlife world.
“It’s not about partying,” he said. “It’s about us making money.”
The referendum is also opposed by the Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police. Union president Bobby Jenkins called the effort “misguided.”
“The ordinance proposed to ban liquor sales on Ocean Drive at 2 a.m. is another example of how our City’s leadership has failed to have meaningful conversations with our law enforcement officers around the issues that are actually driving the illicit behavior and criminal activity on the strip,” Jenkins said in a statement.
The majority of candidates for mayor and commission in the upcoming election have said they will oppose the referendum. Mayoral candidate Kenneth R. Bereski II said he wasn’t fundamentally opposed but thought the scope of the item was too narrow as it only applies to some businesses on Ocean Drive. Commission candidate Mark Samuelian has declined to share his position on the measure and said he’ll respond to whatever voters decide.