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Thursday, October 7, 2021

Ocala takes next step towards open container downtown event zone

During Tuesday night’s regular city council meeting, members unanimously voted to move forward with a bill that will allow downtown Ocala businesses to sell alcoholic beverages for off-premise consumption during designated events.

The bill will now go to the Florida Legislature next month and must be approved by the Florida House of Representatives, the Florida Senate, and signed by Governor Ron DeSantis before it can be enacted.

Currently, only non-profit organizations may request permits for the consumption of alcoholic beverages within downtown Ocala during events.

During the discussion of the bill, multiple council members expressed concerns and asked pointed questions regarding the changes.

Councilman Ire Bethea, Sr. and Mayor Kent Guinn both indicated that they were concerned with the amount of alcohol consumed during events and the types of containers used. Guinn also voiced concerns over the number of possible events in the event zone.

Ocala City Council regular meeting on Tuesday October 5
Ocala City Council members during their regular meeting on Tuesday, October 5

Councilman Brent Malever questioned the effective hours of operation of each permit and suggested that a time limit would have to be worked out for when alcohol can be sold.

Ocala Assistant City Manager Pete Lee stressed that the bill, which is modeled after similar ordinances in Celebration Pointe and Leesburg, has a variety of details that are yet to be worked out. He explained that effective hours of operation, standardized containers, and restricted movement within the designated downtown zone are all elements that an organization will have to specify in its application.

Ocala Downtown Event Zone 1
The proposed Ocala Downtown Event Zone would include popular spots like Citizens’ Circle and the downtown square

“I’m envisioning the ordinance to be that they’ve got to come to council to get approval, they’ve got to establish the hours of operation, they’ve got to establish the geographical zone, and they’ve got to establish how it’s served and where it’s consumed,” said Lee.

Lee says that the typical rules of service across establishments would still be in effect, including the policy of not serving intoxicated individuals.

According to Lee, the city will coordinate with police both before and after the events, and an assessment of each event will review what occurred during the event and how it was staffed.

Ocala City Council President Justin Grabelle and councilman Jay Musleh both agreed that the new bill would help downtown Ocala businesses that are currently prevented from selling alcohol for consumption off premises during designated events.

“Can we zoom out a little bit and maybe look at it from the macro level of why we’re doing this? And that’s really to help those businesses be able to participate in those events and make money off of them and have customers come in and freely move around,” said Grabelle.

Mayor Guinn, who may not vote on matters presented to the Ocala City Council other than to veto items that are approved, closed the discussion with a warning.
“I get you’re trying to support the businesses and have people go and buy it at the business and be able to carry it from one business to the next without having to drink it all up and go to the next business to buy another drink. You’re creating a little extra burden on the police department, and I think you’re going to have a little bit higher number of DUIs, and I think you’re going to have a higher number of traffic crashes after these events. Just be forewarned.”