Liquor limit for chains under attack Smaller businesses fight plan to relax one-license rule

'Against our philosophy'

Gary proposal aims to help county attract franchise restaurants

February 09, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

County Executive John G. Gary is risking a clash with hundreds of small business owners by pushing a change in county law that could attract more national restaurant franchises to the area.

Mr. Gary had legislation submitted to the General Assembly last week that would lift what Anne Arundel economic development officials say is a barrier to their efforts: a law limiting restaurant chains to one liquor license within county lines.

If approved, the legislation would permit a chain to apply for additional licenses as it opened restaurants outside Annapolis.

The one-license limit has cost the county money and recruiting leverage, say economic development officials. They cite restaurants such as Ruby Tuesday's and Olive Garden that have chosen not to open second franchises in the county or have done so in Annapolis, which sets its own liquor-licensing rules.

"It's certainly a revenue builder," said Del. Phillip D. Bissett, an Edgewater Republican, who is carrying the legislation for Mr. Gary. "We think it will be an economic development tool."

By themselves, large franchise restaurants are economic dynamos, employing as many as 100 workers and earning $5 million to $7 million in annual revenues, according to county economic development officials.

Mr. Gary said the Outback Steakhouse and T. G. I. Friday's chains have shown interest in opening second county locations if the licensing law is changed.

But the jumbo restaurants may be more important as magnets for new industry.

Michael S. Lofton, who runs the county Economic Development Corp., said commercial plazas such as the Hock, Cromwell and National parks around Baltimore-Washington International Airport would fill with the arrival of a well-known restaurant.

Small-restaurant owners, represented by the Anne Arundel County License Beverage Association, fear the new law could harm their businesses. Mr. Gary has met with the group to explain his plans, but skepticism remains.

"It goes against our philosophy of one person, one license," said Greg Phillips, an association member who owns Frank's Den in Glen Burnie.

Under the proposed law, restaurants with capital investments valued at more than $750,000 and with parking for at least 75 cars would be allowed to apply for a second liquor license. Permits would cost $1,500 a year.

A broader measure to ease liquor licensing failed in the General Assembly more than 10 years ago, largely as a result of stiff opposition from the Maryland State License Beverage Association. That bill would have allowed grocery and convenience stores to sell alcohol, in addition to permitting chains more than one liquor license.

While the county's bill is narrower than the one that failed a decade ago, the "consternation" it has caused among small-restaurant owners has surprised Mr. Gary. Baltimore, Prince George's and Montgomery counties allow chains multiple liquor licenses.

Mr. Gary characterized the county License Beverage Association's opposition as "a little silly," but said he might pull the bill if he cannot reach an agreement with its roughly 250 members. If that happens, he said, the bill could be tailored to limit second licenses to restaurants opening in shopping centers.

"We're looking for jobs," Mr. Gary said. "I don't care how much money they bring in in property taxes. I want the jobs."

The bill, introduced to the House Economic Matters Committee on Feb. 2, will be reviewed by the Anne Arundel County delegation before moving to a committee vote. Several delegates said they have heard complaints from the county License Beverage Association.

"It's a good small-business bill," said Del. Mary Ann Love, a Glen Burnie Democrat who sits on the Economic Matters Committee. "But we don't want to hurt the businesses that are already here."

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