Liquor board proposal draws criticism in city

December 17, 1990|By Ann LoLordoand Martin C. Evans

In the 21 years she's owned the Club Climax in West Baltimore, Anne Butler has braved 70-hour weeks and calmed patrons emboldened by liquid courage to make profitable a business that in recent years has seen fewer customers drinking at the bar than buying booze to go.

Now, faced with the possibility that new regulations being proposed by the Board of Liquor License Commissioners may prevent her from operating as she has before, Mrs. Butler says the fruits of her labor may be lost.

"That would put me out of business," Mrs. Butler said, referring to a proposal that holders of tavern licenses would have to earn at least half their income through selling drinks to customers inside their bars.

And she's not the only tavern owner in town who feels that way. Three associations that represent owners of liquor establishments say they oppose the proposed rules, which also would forbid tavern owners from installing bulletproof glass partitions or selling groceries or household items.

But the executive secretary of the liquor board said the proposals are not aimed at closing businesses.

"The intent of the regulation is not to put people out of business but to bring some uniformity to their operations," said Aaron L. Stansbury, the secretary to the liquor board. "What we are saying is that if you want to have a tavern license, you have to operate like a tavern."

On Friday, the liquor board will meet with state senators from Baltimore to discuss the proposed regulations. Last spring the senators asked the board to draft stricter guidelines to govern tavern licenses. But already some senators are saying that the proposed rules go too far.

"I don't think you can put certain stores out of business," said Sen. John A. Pica Jr., D-Baltimore. "If there is a belief that certain people are getting away with something, then that should be corrected. But not this drastically."

Mr. Stansbury said the regulations under consideration were drafted to address years of complaints from neighborhood groups. Community leaders have said that increasing numbers of tavern owners were closing their lounges and doing most of their sales in takeout business, circumventing the city's ban on seven-day liquor stores.

That, say community leaders, has led to public drunkenness, loitering and littering.

"They buy their bottle, come outside, open it up and indulge," said Carmena F. Watson, president of the Harlem Park Trust Inc., a West Baltimore organization that has prodded liquor officials to curb the conversion of taverns into liquor stores. "The owners don't seem to control who comes in and out."

At issue is a category of licenses known as BD7 licenses -- a seven-day license for taverns -- that governs the operation of some 620 establishments in the city. Of those businesses, about 170 operate as seven-day package stores in violation of the intent of the license, Mr. Stansbury said.

There is no license in Baltimore that allows package-goods stores to stay open seven days a week.

Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, D-Baltimore, attributed the increase in the operation of seven-day taverns as package-goods stores to both a vagueness in the law and lax enforcement.

"Over the years, liquor inspectors winked at this as long as they [the licensees] didn't bother anybody," said Mr. Miedusiewski, whose parents operate a seven-day bar in East Baltimore.

Although BD-7 licenses date to the middle 1960s, the board has never set clear rules dictating what tavern owners could and could not do, Mr. Stansbury said. That left an opening for some tavern owners who, their fears raised by the 1968 riots and by growing numbers of armed robberies during the 1970s, began )) operating from behind Plexiglas partitions.

That, say liquor officials, forever changed the way those businesses operated.

No longer were they neighborhood taverns, where owners could be held responsible for the conduct of their patrons. Rather, the businesses became impersonal liquor dispensaries for customers who used the steps of nearby houses as bar stools and alleys as urinals.

Others retained their character as taverns but installed Plexiglas outer doors so that they could screen their patrons and buzz in only those whom they recognized.

"The idea is to be selective in your customer," said Earl "Coach" Banks, executive director of the Maryland United Licensee Beverage Association. "You've got to know who's coming in to protect your customers as well as yourself."

Some black community leaders say that the conversion of taverns to Plexiglas-enclosed liquor stores accelerated during the 1980s. Often, these community leaders say, the

owners of the establishments were newly arrived Korean businessmen who bought neighborhood taverns and found that language barriers and cultural differences became the source of friction.

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