City tourism boosters covet all-night dollars

Current laws stand in way of expanding nightlife until 6 a.m.

April 28, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

You can call it a bar fight.

Baltimore tourism boosters -- backed by nationwide trends that show people clamoring for late-night entertainment -- are preparing to battle what they see as outdated liquor and zoning laws.

While party-until-dawn nightlife is reviving the travel industry in New York, New Orleans and Miami, several influential leaders here say the city has been slow to recognize the trend, costing it "tens of millions of dollars."

"A city today, in order to win, it has to be considered a happening place," said Carroll R. Armstrong, president of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "They got to be where the action is."

Some legislators agree. They are preparing to push a two-pronged nightlife agen- da through City Hall and the State House. But they face a fight, with the outcome expected to determine whether the hours between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. are sleep time or party time in Baltimore.

Three after-hours clubs operate now -- two on North Charles Street and one on Russell Street -- and the zoning board has scheduled hearings next month on applications of two more. The applicants face the same problems that have blocked other after-hours entrepreneurs: restrictive laws.

City Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings plans to introduce legislation next month to permit more after-hours clubs -- which charge admission and play music but do not serve alcohol -- in certain nonresidential neighborhoods, such as industrial sites.

State Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV said he plans to introduce a bill in Annapolis during the 2001 session to permit alcohol to be sold at establishments in a swath of downtown until 4 a.m., instead of the current 2 a.m. closing time.

While the proposals appear to have the support of several leaders of Baltimore's hotel, development and tourist industry, there could be stiff opposition from police, some public officials and community groups that fear late-night problems.

Opposition gathers

Local and state officials outside Baltimore are taking sides, too.

The Baltimore County Council is reviewing a bill, endorsed by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, to ban after-hours clubs, which Councilman Wayne M. Skinner said "attract nothing but riffraff."

And this month, lawmakers in Annapolis overwhelmingly passed legislation to beef up state liquor laws barring most nightclubs in Baltimore from remaining open after 2 a.m., even if they are not selling alcohol. The governor is reviewing the bill.

That legislation followed a raid on Club 723 in Fells Point two months ago by police and liquor board inspectors after the popular nightclub attempted to keep its doors open between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. for dancing in an alcohol-free environment.

"[Club] 723 came to us and said they want to stay open. We said we are not going to be the ones to change the precedent and decided they might be right" that the law was vague]," said Leonard R. Skolnik, chairman of the Baltimore Board of Liquor Commissioners, also known as the liquor board.

The `Milk Bar Law'

For decades the liquor board, which regulates alcohol-serving establishments, and the city zoning board, which must approve permits for nonalcoholic clubs, have cited the "Milk Bar Law" in their opposition to late entertainment.

Created in 1947 to stamp out the remaining speakeasies of the Prohibition Era, the law prohibits the operation of businesses that serves food or beverages, excluding movie theaters, between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.

Establishments that want to be open during the early morning must receive a "conditional use" permit from the zoning board, which will be issued only if the club adheres to "public health, security, general welfare and moral" standards.

Three city nonalcoholic nightclubs have managed, through legal maneuvers, to become established after-hours clubs. The clubs, however, are under constant scrutiny from officials and in most cases are barred from expanding.

Two clubs, Choices in the 1800 block of N. Charles St. and Paradox in the 1300 block of Russell St., cater predominantly to African-Americans.

The third, Club 1722 in the 1700 block of N. Charles St., began about 15 years ago as a club where Baltimore gays and lesbians could socialize. It now draws an even mix of gays and heterosexuals as more people seek out late-night entertainment, said club manager Michael Kohl.

Boasting more than 2,000 members, including lawyers, doctors and city police officers, the club opens its doors from midnight to 6 a.m. Thursday through Sunday, attracting crowds of about 200 nightly.

Elaborate strobe and laser lights, synchronized with techno music, create an environment that could rival a nightclub in New York's most fashionable entertainment districts.

Members dance on a floor lined with mirrors, or chat in one of several sitting rooms with water and juice bars. "It is all cutting-edge, and people should expect New York and Miami on a small scale," said Nick Scarpulla, 37, a member.

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