The debate over whether the late-night party scene should pulse along Annapolis' historic downtown streets, quiet for the last three months, is about to erupt again.
City alderman are to consider tonight legislation that would allow more downtown restaurants to serve alcohol and offer entertainment until 2 a.m. Most of those establishments must close by midnight.
Ward 5 Democrat Carl O. Snowden is sponsoring a bill to allow 2 a.m. closings for Buddy's Crabs & Ribs on Main Street and Maria's Sicilian Ristorante & Cafe on Market Space, restaurants engulfed in the last controversy over closing times. That bill already has the support of five council members, enough for passage, and could come up for a vote by September.
"Consistency and fairness is what we're attempting to put in place," Mr. Snowden said.
The fate of a more sweeping bill that would allow 2 a.m. licenses for all downtown restaurants and bars remains uncertain. Ward 8 Democrat Ellen O. Moyer, the sponsor, has not corralled any co-sponsors for the measure, which also will be introduced tonight.
Even some restaurateurs say that bill goes too far.
"You do have to reach a point where you say, 'Enough is enough,' " said Jan Hardesty, whose husband, Jerry Hardesty, owns Middleton Tavern and O'Brien's Oyster Bar & Restaurant, both of which close at 2 a.m.
"We don't want to turn downtown into Bourbon Street" in New Orleans, she said.
Mr. Snowden's bill "makes downtown wide open to 2 a.m. liquor licenses," complained Ward 1 Alderman Louise Hammond, a Democrat. "The city should listen to the people, which it doesn't, and not just some bar owners."
Historic district residents say the city would shatter an agreement to control downtown development that residents and businesses spent four years negotiating if it awards even one new late-night license.
In the latest debate, two aldermen have traded accusations.
Mr. Snowden accused Ms. Hammond of "hypocrisy" for supporting a 2 a.m. license for the Harbour House, owned by a friend and campaign contributor, while opposing late-night licenses for Buddy's and Maria's.
Mrs. Hammond countered that the Harbour House closing time was legitimate and charged that Mr. Snowden was trying to drum up a controversy as a "smoke screen" for his own campaign to fill downtown with nightclubs.
Harvey Blonder, who owns Buddy's and briefly held a 2 a.m. license, has spent years in an unsuccessful bid to win back the late hours. Now, he smells victory.
"I think that the city council realized that there's been some mistakes, because we all make mistakes in life, and they realized that certain people were not treated equally and they're trying to take care of that now," he said.
Since he lost his 2 a.m. license downtown, Mr. Blonder has opened Buddy's Late Night in a former bingo hall on Hudson Street, just outside city limits. The nightclub has a 2 a.m. county liquor license, 62,000 watts of lights on the dance floor, 66 surround-sound video speakers, 29 television monitors, a video wall, four theater screens and 48 brands of microbrewery beer.
If he wins a 2 a.m. liquor license for his downtown establishment, Mr. Blonder vowed that the restaurant would take a more low-key approach. "We'll probably make it a jazz hall," he said.
New business owners in the city are wondering what the debate over 2 a.m. licenses will mean for their profits. Roy Dunshee purchased the Acme Bar & Grill on Main Street last fall on the understanding that he would have only a handful of late-night competitors.
"My understanding was that there would be a monopoly," Mr. Dunshee said. "We valued the business based on that."
Other restaurant owners say closing times are not important because nightclubs are opening just outside the city limits, downtown parking is scarce and a reconstruction project on Main Street is scaring business away.
Bob Platt, who owns Mums on Dock Street, said, "Business is so repressed right now, it's not going to matter one way or the other who stays open."
Mr. Platt said late-night business is moving elsewhere in the county, at the expense of the city's historic district.