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With club attendance up, will crime return?

BRADENTON — A new name is on the building. Fresh light-colored paint coats walls inside. Three more security cameras are installed.

Those are among the changes for the 720 Club.

Business is growing again for the nightclub, which was shut down a year ago after an undercover drug operation by Bradenton Police Department and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco produced arrest warrants for a former manager and a few patrons.

But Rickie Waiters, owner of the 720 Club, formerly known as Club RJ’s, 720 Ninth Ave. W., said he is concerned trouble will creep back into the club after he has worked hard revamp the club’s image.

That’s why he recently went to police and asked to hire two off-duty Bradenton police officers to work in the club’s parking lot to deter crime.

“I think that would cut back on 90 percent of the problems if we had officers here,” Waiters said. “We’re willing to pay for it. ... I’m willing to take the extra measures before somebody gets hurt on my property. ... I’d rather patrons wake up in jail than six feet under.”

Police, who have argued the club has been a public safety issue for years and should be shut down, recently turned Waiters down.

Bradenton police officers do not work security at bars, although neighboring law enforcement agencies such as Palmetto Police Department do.

“It’s not something we’re going to change for him and it’s up to him to keep it in a way that won’t need police presence,” said Bradenton Police Deputy Chief William Tokajer. “If we would open it up for his bar, we would have to open it up for everyone. We don’t have enough police to cover the bars in the city.”

Waiters’ club was closed Feb. 22 last year and re-opened May 5 after he reached an agreement with the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco to include more safety measures at the club.

Those measures included: firing employees who permitted drug sales, hiring drug-free employees and performing periodic drug screenings, installing additional video cameras, patrolling the club inside and out and periodically using a trained drug dog to sweep the club property, according to the agreement.

The club currently has three bouncers and a hired security guard to work the parking lot on busy nights.

Although the security guard has a gun and handcuffs, “He doesn’t have the authority of a police officer,” Waiters said.

Police were upset when the club was re-opened and believe the guidelines Waiters agreed to with the state agency are loosely written, according to Tokajer.

“We’re going to continue to enforce the laws and hope there is a future change in politics at Alcohol Beverages and Tobacco that will take the appropriate action the community deserves,” Tokajer said.

The Division of Alcohol Beverages and Tobacco sent agents to club and learned most measures in the agreement have been followed, said Jenn Meale, communications director for the state agency. The last check was Jan. 15.

All the guidelines were met with the exception of using a drug dog to search the premises, she said.

“We understand they are having difficulty obtaining a dog,” Meale said. Tokajer said the department has not used its police dogs to sweep the site because of liability issues. He also stated the dogs are not for hire.

It’s unclear where Waiters will find dogs to conduct the sweeps.

The club was also cautioned on a couple of minor violations unrelated to the agreement that included loitering and refilling alcohol bottles, Meale said.

In the meantime, Waiters said the club’s attendance is slowly increasing to normal levels.

“We’re trying to get off to a fresh start,” he said. “To my knowledge, they haven’t taken anyone down for narcotics.”

According to police, there have been 24 calls to the club since it reopened.

Those calls have included a fight outside the club and a stolen car on fire in the parking lot, Waiters said.

Those figures are down when compared to the time period before the operation.

The club had two murders, 12 shootings or possession of firearms, 29 assaults and batteries, and 25 drug complaints over a three-year period from October 2006 to January 2009, according to police statistics.

As a result of the six-month sting at the nightclub, several people were arrested on narcotics charges. All of the reported drug deals inside the club took place less than 1,000 feet away from a municipal park. Martin Luther King Jr. Park, 509 Ninth Ave. W., is 487 feet away.

In at least one case, a former club manager reportedly referred an alleged drug dealer to the undercover agents for them to buy drugs inside the club, according to court documents. The status of his case was unavailable.

Earnest Fields III, 32, faced seven counts of selling cocaine near a municipal park. Fields allegedly sold cocaine inside the club to undercover agents. The State Attorney’s Office declined to file on all of Fields’ charges, according to court documents.

Johnie Jones Jr., 34, faces five counts of selling marijuana near a municipal park and one count of selling cocaine near a municipal park. Jones also reportedly sold drugs to undercover agents inside the club after a club manager sent him over to the undercover agents. Jones, who pleaded not guilty, is slated to go to trial March 15 before Manatee County Circuit Court Judge Diana Moreland.

Sharon Arlinda Armour, 45, faces one charge of selling cocaine near a municipal park after she reportedly purchased five baggies of cocaine for an undercover agent inside the club. A bench warrant has been issued for her arrest last month after she tested positive for cocaine and marijuana in December, according to court documents. A trial date has not been set.