WILDWOOD — City Commission opted Wednesday night not to vote on a plan to allow the city’s bars to stay open an extra hour. Instead, the commissioners will consider a new proposal to allow the bars to stay open 24 hours a day from May to October.
After a public hearing that lasted about three and a half hours, Mayor Gary DeMarzo and Commissioner Edward Harshaw said they did not support allowing the bars to remain open one extra hour because they agreed the additional hour would be off little value to the bars. But they embraced a suggestion made by John Davis, bar manager at Luna Ristorante on Pacific Avenue.
Davis, a former city police officer speaking on behalf of the city’s tavern owners, said the bars needed every advantage to compete with neighboring municipalities in a difficult economy.
“We propose that we open 24 hours a day for the tourist season,” Davis said, explaining the season stretched from May to October.
He pointed to resorts such as Atlantic City, Brigantine and Las Vegas that allow alcohol service 24 hours a day.
Davis said the idea could increase business for Wildwood’s bars and eliminate the city’s bar break, that period of time after the 3 a.m. closing time when hundreds of bargoers spill out into city streets.
“What do you have to lose?” Davis asked.
Davis said he worked the midnight shift for 18 years and knows well that the 3 a.m. closing sends bar patrons into the streets and neighborhoods all at one time.
“This would alleviate the mass exodus,” Davis said.
Commissioner Al Brannen, who opposed allowing the bars to stay open until 4 a.m., also opposed the 24-hour idea.
DeMarzo and Harshaw, however, said the proposal has merit.
They amended the ordinance that would have allowed the 4 a.m. closing and added the 24-hour plan. A public hearing on the revised ordinance now is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. July 28.
During Wednesday’s hearing, dozens of residents and business owners spoke for or against the time change.
Currently, the city’s bars operate under an ordinance that requires “alcoholic beverages shall not be permitted to be sold, served, delivered or dispensed between the hours of 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. in any premises licensed to sell alcoholic beverages.”
That ordinance was adopted in a 1997 vote in which 54 percent of residents supported moving the closing time back from 5 a.m. to 3 a.m.
That change was prompted in part by the Feb. 15, 1997, death of John Vollrath Jr., a 23-year-old North Wildwood man who died after being beaten outside the former Club Kaladu. Police were called to the scene that day at 2:36 a.m.
One resident said she remembered the 1997 incident and how it had hurt Wildwood’s reputation.
Others said Wildwood is a resort that serves many segments like Walt Disney World.
Wildwood Crest resident Joseph DiEduardo, whose family owns a city bar, said the city could serve a range of visitors including families and others without conflict.
“Even Disney has a nightclub area,” he said.
Others, such as resident Larry Lillo, said the bars have 20 hours a day to operate and that should be enough.
“I don’t want to see the bars open late,” Lillo said. “All we’re doing is giving more alcohol to people who don’t need more alcohol.”
Still, others said the city’s Police Department should do more to enforce existing laws and make Pacific Avenue, the city’s struggling downtown area, a safer place for visitors and residents.
Attorney David Stefankiewicz, who operates Good Night Irene’s, said the bars need an edge to compete with neighboring towns.
“I do think we need a better police presence,” Stefankiewicz added.
Brannen continued to argue that there are other ways, such as live music, to attract business beyond extending the bar hours, and he urged city residents to patronize the city’s bars and restaurants.
“We have to wake up this town to support bars and restaurants on Pacific Avenue,” he said.
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