Corona Cigar Co. owner says operation at Lemon Avenue and First Street will be a high-end addition to the city.
A downtown redevelopment proposal that drew controversy last summer did so again last week when owners of a cigar bar and retail store sought final approval from the city’s Planning and Zoning Board to convert a vacant storefront into a new business.
As it did in August, concerns about outdoor smoke once again brought into focus a difference of opinion on the nature of downtown. And although the board ultimately approved Corona Cigar Co.’s site plan and a request for a major conditional use permit at First Street and Lemon Avenue, the question of what downtown should be remained open.
Board member Dan Clermont, voting with the majority in the 4-1 decision, said the city’s business core should ultimately be many things to many people.
"Worldwide, downtowns are a city’s living room, and there you will find all kinds of activities," he said in explaining his vote in support of the new business. "There are different things people enjoy and experience and ones people don't like. But it doesn't mean we should ban them."
The clear issue with Corona Cigar Co.'s plan had nothing to do with activities indoors, which would include retail sales of cigars alongside a lounge that would allow cigar smoking and serve food and alcoholic drinks under the auspices of a liquor license. What did concern at least one board member, and prompted the only dissenting vote, was smoke from a proposed, but not yet approved, outdoor area with tables and chairs arranged in an outdoor cafe style.
Although included in the business's site plan, the outdoor cafe permit would be considered administratively at a later date, meaning the matter would not again come before an elected or appointed group.
Board member Damien Blumetti, who voted against the site plan and major conditional use permit, said the outdoor smoke was something he could not support.
"I don’t think that’s the image, whether you think it's high-end or not, we want downtown," he said.
It's an issue that's arisen before in the context of downtown and activities that could potentially run afoul of either residents of the area or visitors, such as those who might come downtown to experience the weekend farmers market, art shows or the like.
At a community workshop on Aug. 18, downtown residents challenged Corona Cigar Co. Owner Jeff Borysiewicz's assertion that the next store in his chain would be a valuable addition. Some questioned the local clientele, saying there was no market for high-end cigars and whiskey in Sarasota, and others said there were already too many bars and drinking establishments downtown. Others, though, supported the notion saying it would be a good fit.
Although two members of the public signed up to speak at the Planning and Zoning meeting last week, none were present do so. Board members received a presentation from Borysiewicz and his team and heard from the property owner, Lou Donato, who supported the Corona Cigar Co. proposal. He said the store on the site of the former Sur La Table kitchen-supply store satisfies his goal for a mix of tenants among his downtown properties. He also said that customers of the now-closed business had often objected to the number of homeless people around the Sarasota County Area Transit bus terminal across the street, making finding a new tenant more difficult than elsewhere downtown.
Borysiewicz said his company has been praised in all its locations in the Orlando and Tampa Bay areas as classy and high-end. He said his tried-and-true business model includes outdoor seating and that there is no live music, no karaoke performances and no DJs.
"This will be the place in Sarasota where people come together, congregate and talk," he said. "And enjoy a cigar with a cocktail. This is an experience."
Borysiewicz said his landlords have welcomed his business in all the locations, and customers are appreciative of his offerings. He said smoke outdoors has never been a problem, even in the case of his downtown Orlando store, which is in close proximity to a movie theater complex, condominiums and a decades-in-business furrier.
"Look what's next to us. It's a bus terminal," he said, of the location at 22 N. Lemon Ave. "Does the bus terminal cause people not to want to eat dinner at the Italian restaurant across the street from us? It doesn’t. There is enough distance in the air. It hasn’t been a problem for us."
Blumetti said he supported the idea of the store and indoor cigar lounge but not the outdoor effects of the smoke.
"Inside, great, you can control the environment, you can control the air. It's my decision whether I want to go in there or not," he said. "Walking downtown with my children and my wife and I, who don’t smoke, have to pass by that I think is a major concern not only for me but for other people in this community."
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