ESTERO — Kim Victor laughed when a security guard told her group of friends to pack up the Perrier with lime, deviled eggs, quinoa salad and birthday cake she brought for a tailgate before last week's Elton John concert at Germain Arena. She thought he was kidding.
"He said, 'I'm serious, I'm telling you because the cops are going to come,'" Victor said. "And a half-hour later, a cruiser pulled up!"
Victor was still laughing about it this week. She and others who were upset to have their preconcert plans cut short by security on March 13 say they've never had problems in the past. In fact, tailgating was widespread in the parking lot before Zac Brown Band played in January, and involved more than Perrier and salad. And, with country star Eric Church set to perform Thursday, many are left wondering what the rules are.
Germain President Craig Brush said the arena has had a no tailgating policy for 14 years. But banning Perrier?
"It's very hard to control. Someone could say they're drinking Perrier, and it's straight gin," Brush said. "If someone drinks a six-pack of beer outside, and then comes and buys one beer from us, and goes out, has an accident and kills somebody, who do you think is liable? Our policy is not to allow it."
The arena's website cites a county ordinance, which Brush also mentioned, as behind the tailgating ban. Joan LaGuardia, a spokeswoman for Lee County, said there is no specific land development code dealing with tailgating, but the arena's original zoning resolution puts limits on outdoor alcohol consumption and the use of parking for events.
Under the zoning resolution, alcohol sale and consumption is limited to a roped-off area outside the main doors as part of outdoor entertainment offered before hockey games. To exceed those limits, LaGuardia said, arena managers are required to apply for temporary use permits — which Brush said is done "when it makes sense." Like before Zac Brown Band played. The country group tailgates with fans before each show.
Generally, LaGuardia said, facilities that offer refreshments indoors "discourage widespread tailgating in favor of their own vending, as well as to discourage problems with drinking and partying outdoors."
Enforcement varies, but many facilities are tolerant of orderly, family-style tailgating, she said.
That may not have been the case before Elton John's performance. Because security personnel cannot be everywhere, Brush said, they can only deal with what they see.
That included Jeff Siwicke, who sat in the parking lot about an hour before Elton John was to take the stage, enjoying a Publix sandwich and conversation with a few other fans huddled around a small folding table — until a security guard told them to "shut it down." Surprised, his girlfriend's mother asked if she could finish her sandwich.
"It was me and a bunch of old folks sitting around," said Siwicke, who is 37 and was accompanied by his girlfriend, her parents and his mother. "We're like, 'Why are these guys wasting their time and effort on us?'"
Victor, who brought a tablecloth and candle and put the Perrier on ice to make the setup look nice ("because hey, it was Elton John — you don't eat chicken wings before Elton John,") offered food to others in the parking lot and stuffed the leftovers into her car. She's since told her friends who are going to see Eric Church that they shouldn't bother bringing food.
Both Siwicke and Victor said Elton John didn't disappoint — they enjoyed the show.
And afterward, Victor pulled out the birthday cake and sang "Happy Birthday" to her friends. This time, nobody stopped them.