I love this bar, and I don’t even like bars. Maybe it’s a case of rooting for the underdog, but I doubt it. I think it’s more that my sense of fair play is enraged. The Swigwam didn’t stand a chance at tonight’s St. Pete Beach commission meeting, despite public support, exaggerated stories of imaginary mis-deeds, and one of the loveliest places I’ve visited on Corey.
At the end of the day, though, it’s a bar, and that has some people on Corey worried about their image.
“A non-smoking, dog-friendly bar? Yeah, I can see where that’s a big threat,” my friend Leah snorted and I must admit, I agree. St. Pete Beach has crime issues on West Corey and a cluster of rental properties that look like they wouldn’t survive even the most basic housing inspection, but clearly someone has decided that Rob Williams’ bar, not one or two others that have people stumbling out at 8 a.m., is the problem.
If you ask the people complaining – and I did – they’ll tell you that the issue isn’t Rob, the owner, but the people who patronize the Swigwam. Fair enough. So I made three trips to the Swigwam since Commissioner Lorraine Huhn said she wanted to take away the Swigwam’s out-front drinking privileges (I’d never visited before), and I waited for the trouble to start.
To hear a select few people (who speak loudly and make campaign donations, apparently) tell the story, the Swigwam is a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah. If I dared walk past, I’d choke in a cloud of smoke while lecherous men catcalled and groped me. I’d run away from this intimidating group of men who would sway drunkenly from intimidating tall chairs while publicly defecating on the street and throwing their beer bottles down in front of little old ladies (who, I assume, they would grope).
I am certain the people who made the complaints will not believe me, and I don’t really care, but I tried, guys. I did. I already walk Calypso the wonder dachshund down the street a few times a week, but now I took her to the bar itself. We went there in the afternoon. We went there on a Friday night. We went there late at night. The worst thing that happened was that my beer got warm and Calypso got more catcalls then I did.
The smokers stay outside – Swigwam is a non-smoking bar – so it dissipated before it could annoy me. I’m no Sofia Vergara, so maybe that’s why no one groped me. I mean, former CABA president Jeff Janson hugged me once, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count. As for the beer bottles and human waste, I didn’t see any. I never see any when I walk Corey. I’m not sure how the five businesses who object to the Swigwam’s outdoor drinking permit know whatever they saw comes from Swigwam customers – DNA samples, perhaps? – and not the west Corey population that, quite honestly, scares me more than anything else on the beach. I am certain that those five small businesses must have proof, although no one showed me any. Why else would they put a fellow small business at risk?
In the end, here’s what I think: The Swigwam is a locals bar. It’s Jimmy Buffett’s “Bama Breeze” meets Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar.” And some Corey businesses simply think it’s beneath Corey Avenue to have that sort of place.
This isn’t about tall chairs or people smoking. It’s about Corey, how it’s changing, and a group of people who want to invest in what Corey was, not what it is. I asked every business owner I could find on the street, and only four businesses of the 20 I spoke with expressed concern or declined to comment. Of the remaining four businesses (who either were closed or whose owners did not return calls), one previously spoke at a meeting against the outdoor drinking permit and the other sent an e-mail to a commissioner saying she wanted the Swigwam to continue allowing outdoor drinking.
Here’s what I noticed about those naysayers and no commenters: their attitudes, not their words, suggest that perhaps Corey is too highbrow for such a bar. After all, people drinking and laughing aren’t in keeping with the museum-like atmosphere that seemed, for so long, to be status quo on the street. Perhaps those naysayers are scared that Corey is changing and they don’t really fit anymore. Maybe the new businesses there that bought into the old dream are too stubborn to admit that they made a mistake and Corey isn’t what they thought.
Rob Williams runs a clean, friendly, and – here’s the big thing – busy bar. I feel totally safe there, inside and out. I’m disappointed in the businesses who appeared to lie about the state of business outside the Swigwam, but I am more disgraced by the commissioners who walked into this discussion with their minds made up. It’s hard enough to run a small business without feeling as though your city is against you, too.
The Swigwam’s managing, though. It’s one of the few businesses on Corey that’s alive. I understand that a select few businesses want to sell high-end merchandise to high-end tourists, but, folks, look around – Corey is gasping for breath. The business association is doing what it can, but for people to come, there need to be businesses there that people want to frequent. The Swigwam epitomizes that sort of place. Sitting outside and enjoying a chardonnay in the city’s downtown? Charming. For one more month, anyway, until Rob must take away his chairs, per the city commissioners. It’s such a ridiculous thing to demand I can’t believe it ever came before the commission.
In our dog-friendly, health-conscious era, why on earth would anyone do anything to hurt a smoke-free bar that lets you bring your dog in for a beer? (You, not the dog. Calypso couldn’t get service in there, and believe me, she tried) It brought too much business to the downtown? It made people happy? The laughter and conversation on the street bothers you?
Would you rather hear a death rattle?
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.