The messy closing of Georgie’s Alibi in St. Pete signals potential hard times for the LGBT community

By : Aaron Alper and Jeremy Williams
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The $2 Long Island iced teas in Mason Jars. The disco floor jam-packed with all walks of LGBTQ life. The friendly bartenders who seemed to genuinely love their jobs. The delicious food. The meeting place before St. Petersburg Pride. The feeling of being both safe and accepted. These were the things that made Georgie’s Alibi the place that it was. It wasn’t just a bar. It was an institution, a queer-Cheers; a place where everybody knew your name … for better or worse.

Then came the Facebook message announcing the bar’s closure.

“It is with great sadness and a heavy heart that we announce the rumors are true and Georgie’s Alibi St. Petersburg will cease operations at the close of business on Saturday, Sept. 19,” the Sept. 9 Facebook post read. “The real estate and an adjoining parcel have been sold to a developer who plans on building new housing units. We can’t thank the greater St. Petersburg community enough for their support over the past 15 years. Technology and the greater acceptance of alternative lifestyles have impacted the viability of gay venues throughout the country, and the Alibi was not immune to this phenomena. Thank you everyone for 15 wonderful years of memories!”

Bob Barnum of Earnest Realty Inc. brokered the Georgie’s Alibi deal and was the first to break the news 10 days before Georgie’s closed its doors for good.

“The bar has been losing money for quite some time,” Barnum says.

While details of the sale have still not been made public, Barnum says that the list price for the Georgie’s Alibi building was $895,000. The building next door, which previously housed Metro Wellness before Metro moved across the street, was listed for $495,000.

Barnum, who has been Georgie’s business liaison for many years, spoke with Watermark last December, and said then that Georgie’s was up for sale, but he seemed confident that whomever they sold to would leave the bar open for business.

“We are reaching out to people who have an affinity for the community,” Barnum said in 2014. “We are not marketing to corporate buyers. We are looking for people who will own and operate it and want to be in the area and know what Georgie’s means to the community. It’s painful, all the way around, but it’s better to be for sale then just be closed.”

Both buildings were owned by Shoppes of Kenwood LLC and sold to a development company out of Tampa.

“Sadly,” Barnum said, “Georgie’s is leaving the community.”

But, beyond diminishing returns, the reasons why are unclear.

All Alone With My Memories
Georgie’s was a place where many LGBT men and women came of age. The Alibi, as many playfully called it, opened its doors for business in 1998 and gave a generation of LGBT Burgians (and their allies) a place to experience many first-times and rites of passage.

“If I was going to take any kind of straight friend out for their first gay bar, Alibi was a great option,” says Jeff Klein, local comedian and former Georgie’s bartender. “You would see all types of people there; bears, twinks, lesbians, straight people. It was a slice of life of not just the community, but of St. Pete as a whole.”

Georgie’s was a home away from home, and, from the crowds that formed on its very last night, it was clear the community still had love for its longest running neighborhood gay bar.

“It was a forward thinking place. In the beginning they had an area where they had business cards, copies of Watermark, as well as a trophy wall. It was a little information center. It was a friendly place that put people in touch with each other,” Brian Longstreth, owner of Gay St. Pete House, says.

Longstreth has been going to Georgie’s since the day they opened and thinks it will be hard to find a place similar to what Georgie’s was for the community.

“My defining moment there was when we started St. Pete Pride,” Longstreth says. “Georgie’s was one of the main forces for getting it started. They were there when we were lining up sponsors and were adamant that Central Avenue was the place to do it.”

Georgie’s Alibi and the Kenwood area have been the staging area for the St. Pete Pride parade and after-party.

According to rumors, Pride is looking to move the parade staging to the Tropicana Field, which would change the entire dynamic of Pride.

When reached for comment, Executive Director of St. Pete Pride Eric Skains said that no announcement has been made yet, and that one can be expected by April when St. Pete Pride has their kickoff event next year.

Klein became vocal about the closing of Georgie’s on Facebook, in response to those who were saying Georgie’s was past its prime, an extinct business model in the post-online dating world of Grindr.

“There was negativity involved on my posts,” he says. “They were claiming the gay bar is dead because of gay apps. Rather than argue against it, I maintained that it held sentimental value. It was always there, and although it may not be the same Georgie’s everyone remembers, it’s been a staple and the go-to bar for so long and has had so much history that, for good or bad, when it closed, there is definitely remorse about that.”

Klein feels Georgie’s closing will undoubtedly leave a void in the community that, as of now, is not going to be filled by any other of the existing LGBTQ establishments in the immediate area.

“I am friends with the people at the Flamingo, and they’re trying to help make it interesting again. I am also friends with the owners at Enigma, but, to me, there is no alternative for Georgie’s right now,” Klein says. “The Garage, Lucky Star, they are what they are; small, little dive neighborhood bars. St. Pete has opened now and you can really go anywhere. But at the same time, there is something to be said for an actual gay bar.”

Longstreth launched a GoFundMe page for the Georgie’s Alibi employees when he heard they were given only nine days before the bar would close.

“Georgie’s Alibi staff is like family to many people here in St. Pete,” Longstreth says. “They’ve had a tough couple of years and have continued to work hard and give their time back to the community in many ways. I felt bad for them only getting a nine-day notice, and it’s going to be a rough nine days at that. I just thought it was the right thing to do.”

While the page only raised about a thousand dollars, it demonstrates just how much Georgie’s means to loyal customers like Longstreth.

Ground Control to Major Ron
Ron Gofrank, the owner of Shoppes of Kenwood LLC and Georgie’s Alibi, declined to be interviewed for this article, but Barnum felt comfortable explaining why he opted not to.

“He is a shy guy and this is a really painful time for him,” Barnum says. “This was not something he wanted to do. He turned down offers that were probably not LGBT-friendly, and he had hoped someone might step up and buy Georgie’s. It’s a hard time for him, and for everyone.”

Gofrank signed the contract Sept. 8 for the sale of Georgie’s Alibi and its surrounding businesses. The purchasing company advised Barnum that they plan to tear down the buildings and put in apartment housing sometime late 2016.

“It is depressing,” Barnum says. “Ron tried really hard to get it into profitability, but there was a lack of cooperation in getting things he wanted to [get done] done. Ron is not here and physically, it’s very hard for him to get here. Ron tried, though. He’s spent, and I personally know this, a huge sum of money. Well over six figures in the last two years to shore up the bar.”

The Kenwood area – Georgie’s Alibi, the Metro Wellness Center and King of Peace MCC church, has unofficially been home to St. Pete’s “gay district.”

“This was the LGBT command center, between the Alibi, MCC and Metro, and Equality Florida being a block away, and there were a lot of gay and gay-friendly businesses in the Metro Center building that have all been given notice to move out,” Barnum says.

The Metro Wellness Center, according to Barnum, has also been sold, and is currently looking for a new place to relocate to in the immediate future. The Metro Center has publicly and adamantly denied this claim.

On Sept. 26, Metro Chief Executive Officer Lorraine Langlois issued a statement on the issue of relocating the organization’s Third Avenue North location in St. Pete.

“Metro is not moving,” she said in an email. “If and when we choose to move from this location, we will certainly be the first to let our clients and the community know.”

(Previously, Langlois hinted at more concrete plans to Watermark. “We are searching for a new 30,000 square-foot space and have anywhere from six to 12 months to maybe move,” Langlois said. “For many, Metro is a lifeline offering primary care, counseling, HIV care and social gathering. We would like to stay in the Historic Kenwood neighborhood and have some prospects, but nothing is solid right now. There is no rush, and all services will continue as usual.”)

King of Peace MCC church of St. Petersburg will not be moving from its building in the Kenwood area.

The southern property right behind Georgie’s Alibi was sold to Burlington Place, which is building 53 low-income housing units. Barnum and Earnest Realty did not broker that deal.

“Ron fought against that deal, and he wasn’t getting a lot of support from the Kenwood group for Alibi,” Barnum says. “Everyone threw their hands up and said we were stuck with the project, but we weren’t stuck with it. We could have fought it, because it was going to create a nuisance.”

Barnum claims that they were told the property south of Georgie’s would be a senior living area for residents over the age of 55, so that’s what was believed.

“Well, it’s not,” Barnum says. “It was very misleading and nobody [involved] would listen to me. Where was the hard evidence, the proof, that this was senior housing?”

Barnum points out that Gofrank was treated unfairly in the layout of the development deal, all while trying to do everything he could to accommodate the neighborhood.

“Ron has worked hard to be a good neighbor,” Barnum says. “He spent $100,000 to put in sound-resistant windows and doors. He put urethane foam in the attic to deaden sound transfer. But it wouldn’t matter if people were sitting on patios above the bar. It would be just like what is happening in Downtown St. Pete.”

The lack of support Barnum witnessed from City Council was also one of the reasons he feels Gofrank had no choice but to sell.

“Amy Foster is the one who I am disappointed in,” Barnum says. “She asked, ‘Well what do you think we can do about it?’ She was sympathetic, but at the same time, she was one of the ones who trumpeted [the development] when the project came up.”

Foster is the city council representative for District 8, home of Georgie’s and the Kenwood area. Foster’s office was contacted for comment and sent the following statement:

“The Burlington Place development began meetings with the Historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association, Georgie’s and other key stakeholders a full year prior to my taking office in January 2014. Did I bring forward this project? No-but I do support it (just as I also support Georgie’s Alibi). With people spending over 50 percent of their income on housing, affordable rents are a problem across our country and locally. Green Mills, the developers of Burlington Place, has worked with all stakeholders to meet the needs of our community. The urban setting and mix of uses are one of the attractive qualities of the City of St. Petersburg.”

“It is common and desirable for businesses and residences to coexist within close proximity,” the statement continued. “Green Mills offered to include sound mitigation features within Burlington Place to help reduce potential noise complaints from residents. The property will be marketed to seniors, and they have even met with Metro Wellness about targeting gay seniors with limited income. Georgie’s Alibi has played a significant role in many LGBT lives in St. Petersburg. It is sad to see them close, but their closure has nothing to do with the community planned next door. Mr. Gofrank has also made an impact in our community through his support of our police officers and numerous nonprofits, and I thank him for all he has done for the City of St. Petersburg.”

The Burlington Place application to the city was sent in Dec. 18, 2014. City Council approved Burlington Place as a project Jan. 22, 2015.

Foster added that the sale of Georgie’s has until January 2016 to be finalized, and is contingent on receiving tax credits, so there was no reason for Georgie’s to close immediately, unless they were closing for other reasons.

“I think we could have tried to stop it,” Barnum says. “It put pressure on Ron when he got this offer. Even if he kept the property, he’d be beating a dead horse. He wouldn’t have the parking; people would be complaining about noise. The city council knew this was going to be a hardship, and while they were sympathetic, they didn’t stop anything.”

Barnum stresses that while selling was painful for Gofrank, he feels even more remorse for what it has done to its loyal employees.

“We never argued there wouldn’t be issues involving noise, parking or congestion,” Barnum says. “We know it is an issue. But, again, it’s just like downtown; they take places that made the city come alive and want to tame them to make residents happy, so when this project was approved and the consensus to us was, ‘Tough, you have to deal with it,’ that was what pushed us to do this.”

See photos from Georgie’s Alibi St. Pete final happy hour!

See photos from Georgie’s Alibi St. Pete final night in business!

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