Parking crunch blamed for bite from profits Restaurateurs want limit in number of liquor licenses

August 23, 1998|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

Owners of nine of the 11 restaurants along Ellicott City's Main Street say county policy has led to too many restaurants, too few parking spaces and a drop in their profits. But others -- including owners of two new Main Street restaurants -- say the problems are simply the free market at work.

The nine restaurant owners sent a letter Aug. 10 to County Executive Charles I. Ecker asking him to look into the number of liquor licenses the county is granting to new restaurants and parking problems along Main Street.

The owners say the parking predicament squeezes them from two directions: The growth in county restaurants has put many new ones in shopping centers with plenty of parking as it has added several to Main Street where parking is a problem.

"You've got a finite number of parking spaces and an infinite number of restaurants," said Al Parsons, who has owned Cacao Lane Restaurant on Main Street for 22 years. "It has hurt my business terribly."

Parsons said his restaurant's lunch sales have dropped 25 percent in the last year.

But county officials say that they will not use liquor licenses to limit competition in the county restaurant business -- and that taxpayers have no more obligation to pay for parking lots for restaurants on Main Street than they do for establishments in shopping centers.

"We don't go out there and recruit restaurants -- they go where the market is," Ecker said. "I don't think we should restrict the market."

Said County Council member Darrel E. Drown, a Republican who represents Ellicott City: "I don't think it is up to the taxpayers [to pay for extra parking] unless we are going to that in the rest of the county."

Owners of the two restaurants -- Milltown Tavern and Ellicott Mills Brewing Company -- who didn't sign the letter say they haven't seen a parking problem since they came to Main Street a year ago.

"I don't believe there is a parking problem," said Mark Hemmis of the Ellicott Mills Brewing Company. "I believe the problem is there's been an influx of new restaurants" creating a more competitive market.

According to the letter, there are now about 600 parking spaces in the historic district for the restaurants' capacity of about 1,500 patrons and 250 employees.

"Instead of restaurants and retailers sharing parking spaces, they compete for them," Parsons said. The restaurants alone "eat up more than is available."

Weekends are the main problem, according to the restaurateurs.

"Parking is atrocious here on weekends," said Pat Patterson, who owns P.J.'s of Ellicott City. Customers "don't consider there is parking Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. They just remember when they were here on the weekends."

Patterson -- who says his 20-year-old business has seen a 4.5 percent drop since last year -- said the lack of parking on Main Street drives patrons to new businesses along Montgomery Road and U.S. 40, which are all required to provide parking.

"We welcome competition but we need parking," he said.

County regulations require new restaurants to provide sufficient parking, but Main Street's restaurants are exempt because of the area's historic status.

Marsha McLaughlin, the county's deputy director for planning and zoning, said that the county has added metered parking and, since June, provided a free weekend shuttle service from the 265 spaces at the county courthouse to Main Street. But patrons rarely use the shuttle, McLaughlin said.

"It's hard to get people started on that," Patterson. "Most people don't know about it."

The county's parking commission -- made up of about 20 residents -- studied the problem in 1995. Its proposal could lead to construction of a parking deck just off Main Street paid for by metered parking earnings, McLaughlin said.

But the restaurant owners said that solution might come too late. They think the county should consider restricting the number of liquor licenses.

Parsons said the County Council -- which issues liquor licenses based on need and the suitability of the applicant -- gives them out too easily.

"Anyone can get a liquor license in Howard County," he said.

But Drown said it is not appropriate for the council members to use liquor licenses to control the market.

"If they meet the qualifications, they get a license," Drown said. Limiting the number of licenses "ends up creating an artificial value on a sheet of paper. It [becomes] a huge political football."

Ecker said he plans to let the county's first liquor board -- made up of County Council-nominated appointments -- decide the issue in October.

Drown said the fact that businesses continue to come to Ellicott City suggests the area is a strong market, despite tight parking.

Peter Ruff, an Ellicott City developer who is trying to bring a Mexican restaurant to the district, had another analysis.

"They are not talking about a parking problem, they are talking about a business problem," Ruff said. "Getting their employees to park somewhere else is a solution. I think [new businesses] come [to Main Street] for the same reason they go to Fells Point and Little Italy" in Baltimore.

But Parson says Main Street is no Fells Point, and businesses are beginning to suffer.

"If you drive down the street next year, you will see different names," he said.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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