Late-night action at bar draws rowdy crowds -- and deputies
Published: Friday, April 26, 2013 at 6:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 26, 2013 at 6:19 p.m.
Driving along Southwest 13th Street near Williston Road, the block building with the bright blue roof set back on the east side of the road is hard to miss.
The words “Sports Bar” are painted on a wall above a huge cartoon portrait of a smiling alligator shooting pool. A sign boasts that the bar has the “best wings in town.”
During the day, the parking lot is usually empty. But every Saturday night the All Star Sports Bar, 4251 SW 13th St., is packed with people looking to dance, drink and party well into the early morning hours.
The bar also attracts most of the eastside Alachua County sheriff's deputies working that night.
Their commander, Lt. Kaley Behl, said the Sheriff's Office usually has between eight and 11 deputies there, including herself. “It's a huge tax on our resources,” she said.
The building previously was a pool hall, but now it is a bar and grill that can stay open until 4 a.m. as long as it stops serving alcohol at 2 a.m.
But it's not what happens inside the bar that causes most of the problems, officials and the owner say. The trouble brews outside, in that small parking lot in the front of the building and on a larger open lot on the side.
On weekend nights, those open spaces are jammed with vehicles as well as patrons, many of whom have been drinking for some time, sheriff's officials say. Those elements often combine into volatile situations that lead to calls to the Sheriff's Office.
Deputies have been dispatched to the bar more than 200 times since August 2012 on a variety of calls, ASO records show.
“The sheer volume of calls has it on our radar,” sheriff's spokesman Art Forgey said.
Sometimes, the atmosphere turns violent.
Early on April 1, Brett Johnson was waiting in line outside the bar just before 3 a.m. when a fight broke out, according to a report. Johnson, 30, was stabbed multiple times in the upper torso and bystanders took him to Shands at the University of Florida, where he was listed in critical condition.
On April 21, a fight outside the bar around 4 a.m. turned into a car chase that rolled into the nearby Kangaroo gas station and included a gun being pulled, according to the Gainesville Police Department.
That incident carried into the city when police officers and deputies cornered and arrested Jeffrey Coleman, 21, of Gainesville on drug and weapons charges.
Behl estimates that between 75 and 100 people hang out in the parking lot on Saturday nights. She said that if the agency does not send any deputies out there, it is almost a guarantee that the crowd will get out of hand.
“Usually, we are overwhelmed by what's going on in the parking lot,” she said.
The owner of the bar, James Littles, said that while he employs security guards to monitor inside the building and the parking lot, the authoritative weight of a deputy makes a huge difference in controlling the crowd.
Littles pointed out that he usually is the person who calls law enforcement to the bar.
He said he has offered to pay off-duty deputies to monitor the bar on the busier nights, but the Sheriff's Office has declined. Forgey said because the business serves alcohol, the agency is not allowed to provide those services.
Littles agrees that something needs to be done and he said he wants to stop being open after 2 a.m. But he acknowledges that much of his revenue comes in the hours after 2 a.m. when other bars have closed.
“We don't want to be considered the outside hangout,” Littles said.
Behl said it is difficult for deputies to enforce the rule that no alcohol can be served after 2 a.m. When deputies are inside the bar after that hour, it is hard to determine if the drinks they see were served before or after 2 a.m.
Rick Wolf, assistant director with the Alachua County Growth Management Department, said the business can stay open past 2 a.m. because it is licensed as a restaurant, not a bar. Periodic state audits have shown that at least 51 percent of its sales revenue comes from selling food.
Wolf noted that the business is outside the city limits and thus subject only to the Alachua County ordinance relating to the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Wolf said the county ordinance could be amended so that any establishment selling alcohol would have to close at 2 a.m. instead of being allowed to stay open as long as it stops serving booze at that hour.
However, he said that could hurt other businesses that don't have the problems facing the All Star Sports Bar.
The Sheriff's Office is not alone in being impacted by the early morning revelers. The crowd at the bar often migrates to the Kangaroo station across the street, where Behl always stations a deputy. Many also meet at the IHOP just a short distance north on Southwest 13th Street.
Jeannie Lewis, the manager of the Security Mini Storage facility behind the bar, has been working there for 20 years. She said she has had to clean up liquor bottles and trash and illegally parked vehicles in their lot.
Recently, she said the owner has put up towing signs and has had the property surveyed to know exactly where the property line is at and submitted that to Littles.
Lewis said the owner doesn't know what else to do. The business can't erect a fence because it would block a road to a cell tower that needs to be accessible at all times.
She said Littles has apologized many times and that he wants to figure out a solution, too.
Both Behl and Littles said they have a good relationship and have essentially the same goal, but neither has figured out a good solution. For now, Behl said she has a system in place with her deputies that can handle the crowds.
“I don't see what the answer is at this point,” she said.