Wanna open a bar in Sarasota? Get ready to fill out some paperwork

Aug. 7, 2009

Alex Amaro (pictured above) decided to roll the dice and lease the empty space at 1413 Main Street in April 2008. He wanted to open a lounge — a simple 3,800-square-foot venue for young professionals and out-of-towners looking for something clean, contemporary and a bit upscale. The space had been sitting empty for over a year, so he figured the city would be thrilled about a new revenue source in the heart of downtown. But the Planning Board saw it differently, and rejected his application.

“I wanted downtown and I was waiting to get the right spot for it,” says Amaro. “Then when I had all the obstacles from the city, I said, ‘I need to put a team together.’” That meant hiring a planning consultant, an architecture firm and a law firm. “We had to do battle,” he says, “I told [my attorney]: ‘Get ready to fight. We got to get ready to sue the city, because I’m not going to let it go quietly.’ Why does it have to reach that point just to try and open a business?”

One reason is the lounge’s 4COP license, which indicates the bar doesn’t sell food. “That was when the trouble started,” says Amaro, who shut down the tapas restaurant he owned, Sangria, to focus on the new project, which would eventually become Ivory Lounge. “If I wanted to serve food I would have been open in two months. Look around. There’s a restaurant on every corner, because it’s the only way you can serve alcohol. We’ve got enough restaurants; we need to open more bars.”

“All places downtown have a bar, but nobody makes you eat,” says Pamela Truitt, Amaro’s planning consultant. That’s because opening a bar downtown involves a lot more red tape. Horsefeathers recently fought and won a costly battle to amend a law that says bars can’t be within 500 feet of each other, but the law that says bars can’t be within 500 feet of a church still stands. “I actually couldn’t find when these rules went into law,” says Pruitt. “It was back in the 1950s when ‘bar’ was still a four-letter word. These zoning laws … just don’t apply anymore.”

Gretchen Schneider, general manager of planning and development for the city’s Neighborhood and Development Services Department, says her staff recommended the zoning code be amended to eliminate the church rule, but the Planning Board felt they should continue to review applications on a case-by-case basis. “I guess they feel it’s still potentially an issue for churches to be next to bars,” she says.

When researching Amaro’s case, Pruitt first worked with some of the downtown churches’ land-use attorneys to discuss amending the code. But that fight would have taken substantial time, effort and money, so she chose to focus on only the venue in question. Her research convinced the Planning Board that the lounge wouldn’t disturb the church, and First United on Pineapple Avenue wrote a letter stating it didn’t object. “Anywhere downtown you will be running into this rule,” says Pruitt. “I think a code amendment is still needed.” For Amaro at least, the church problem was resolved.

The next hurdle was the complaints. A number of tenants living in the Plaza at Five Points, the condo above the lounge, voiced their concerns about noise during a Sept. 10, 2008 Planning Board meeting to review the bar. “Some of those people were really up in arms about it,” says Pruitt. “The folks that came to the meeting showed up with pitchforks and some people that didn’t come to the meeting wrote nasty letters to the city.”

Pruitt was able to convince the board that the sound would stay at a reasonable level and would not be able to travel through five floors of parking and five floors of commercial space to disturb the condos 10 stories above. “I don’t understand the things people complain about sometimes,” she says. Obstacle number two was cleared.

So, after six months of research, legal battles and bitching tenants, Amaro’s Ivory Lounge was officially allowed to exist, but still wasn’t permitted to open.

Downtown business owners know about permits. They must obtain separate permits for almost everything imaginable. The paperwork can be heavy and the waits can be long. “The applications they send you are just stupid — pages and pages and pages,” says Amaro. “On top of that, it takes three months to get the damn thing after you file it.”

Fellow Main Street business owner Rachel Withers agrees. Her new coffee shop, art gallery and music venue, The Box Social, opened the same night Ivory did, last Friday. Licensed as a “food-serving coffee shop,” she has managed to navigate the process fairly quickly. “It’s a really big deal how long it takes for a small business owner to get started,” she says. “When they say it takes six months to get a place open, they’re not joking. I’m on my fourth and I’m just now allowed to serve food.”

Schneider was shocked to hear these claims: “We have inspections go out twice a day. You call in the morning, the inspector’s out that afternoon. So, I can tell you that is not true. You’re never waiting for an inspector in the city. And if someone’s telling you that, their contractor has lied to them, which has happened.”

According to Schneider, Amaro applied for a building permit on Jan. 6. The zoning department approved his plans and the building department faxed its comments back on Jan. 7. They needed more information about an exhaust hood. The revised plan, with the required information, was resubmitted Jan. 28, and the building permit was issued on Feb. 2.

Schneider says delays depend on who you’re working with. “For some people, it’s whoever their architect is and the level of work they’re doing in the building. But zoning turns around probably in a day, and then the building folks, you could get a permit back in less than a week. If you submitted something that had a lot of problems with it and you didn’t address things the way you should, there can be some back and forth. But typically, it’s one to two weeks and you’re getting it.”

When Ivory Lounge went before the City Commission for its final confirmation, Amaro thought everything was in order: “Pamela had talked to everybody and they were all supposed to be OK with it.” Then Mayor Dick Clapp decided to raise concerns. “It scared the shit out of me. If he would have made an issue, Pamela said it would have taken another two or three months.” Fortunately, Amaro had rolled lucky dice, and survived Sarasota’s business start-up gauntlet.

After 15 months and $80,000 in legal fees, consultants, attorneys, analysts, licenses, permits, inspections and rent on unused space, Ivory Lounge received its Certificate of Occupancy on July 6, and was officially allowed to bring in its first dime as a downtown bar. “It’s worth the fight,” says Amaro. “I just want to make sure things are better here for people coming downtown.”


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