JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. – Jacksonville Beach bars and restaurants have been in the spotlight after a rash of violence outside their doors, most notably the June shooting death of 23-year-old Leon Bennett.
The violence has city leaders and other residents calling for change, and the City Council is looking at a measure that would close some restaurant bars at midnight instead of 2 a.m.
As Jacksonville Beach Mayor Charlie Latham looks for ways to stop the violence in the tourist destination, he asked for help from the community.
"When we start talking about the midnight and beyond timeframe, it is an ugly persona that we are trying to get under control," Latham told the I-TEAM on Thursday.
Now, some bar owners and managers said they're willing to do their part to make the beach a safer destination for residents and visitors.
"Anywhere that you have alcohol and people drinking, there's going to be issues," said Charlie Hawks, the general manager of Sydney An Australian Beach Club.
Hawks said Sydney has gotten a bad rap lately because of some incidents that occurred on the property and in front of the business on First Street North. The city recently cited the bar for two violations after a customer walked out with alcohol and another person threw a drink off the second-floor balcony.
"I think it's up to us as businesspeople in the community to contribute back to the community and make it safer," Hawks said.
The citations meant the bar could have been shut down early. But management decided, instead of fighting, to work with the city. Sydney has volunteered to stop serving after midnight, even though the other bars are open until 2 a.m.
"Whatever has happened in the past, we are correcting," said attorney Gust Sarris, who represents Sydney. "The police have done everything they can, but they also need the bar owners to participate."
Sydney will be hiring more security staff and putting up signs warning customers of the consequences of bad behavior. The club has also improved its surveillance cameras.
Sarris said they believe things have gotten better over the last couple of weeks.
"There's not been any issues with that recently," he said.
The mayor said cleaning up the beach's nightspots will be a big task, but he appreciates those who seem to be trying to help.
"This is something that everybody's going to work together on," Latham said. "Perception is everything and, right now, the perception is that we are a Wild West of a downtown. And that needs to come to an end right now."
Latham is asking the City Council to approve the change that would cause certain restaurants with liquor licenses to stop serving after midnight. He’s gotten some flak for that, with some people saying it would kill business.
There will be a public workshop to discuss the plan at 5 p.m. on Aug. 8 at Jacksonville Beach City Hall.