Lounge may be city's tenant

El Dorado strip club would bring history of trouble with lease

Change in plan to sell site

March 15, 2001|By Tom Pelton and Gady A. Epstein | Tom Pelton and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Under a proposal to relocate the El Dorado Lounge, Baltimore City government would become the landlord of a strip club where alcohol has been served to minors, patrons have fondled dancers and sex has been offered for money.

Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration is planning to relocate the club from 322 W. Baltimore St. to a vacant city-owned building at 19-21 S. Gay St. to make room for an urban renewal project designed to rebuild the west side of downtown.

The city's top lawyer said yesterday that the government will have to lease the building to the club's owners - and not sell it immediately - because the Gay Street property is pledged as collateral on a city-issued bond.

The relocation plan has upset some neighboring business owners who oppose what they see as an extension of The Block, the city's downtown adult entertainment district, toward the Inner Harbor. Yesterday, a Jewish community leader expressed concerns about the strip club's new site, which would be a block north of the Holocaust Memorial.

"Nobody from City Hall ever contacted us about it and told us," said Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "That kind of operation near the Holocaust Memorial raises a great many concerns that we will have to speak about with the mayor and others."

O'Malley did not return calls yesterday, but his spokesman Tony White said, "I don't see that having the El Dorado at that site will interfere with tourists or people visiting the memorial."

O'Malley has previously defended the new location as one of the few city properties with zoning that allows adult entertainment, noting that the club would be near other such businesses on The Block.

Earlier this week, Baltimore officials said that they would sell the Gay Street building, a former cooking school, to the politically connected family of Kenneth A. Jackson for $50,000, even though a city appraiser said in January that property was worth $530,000.

But yesterday, City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. said the city cannot sell the building until 2013, when the bond is paid off.

Instead, the city will lease the building to the Jacksons' company until 2013, giving the family an option to buy after that, Zollicoffer said.

It's unclear how much rent the city will ask the company to pay. O'Malley's top development officials, M. J. "Jay" Brodie and Sharon Grinnell, did not return calls seeking comment.

But by leasing the Gay Street site, the city will be taking on a tenant with a history of problems.

Yesterday, Jackson, the club's manager, appeared at the offices of the Board of Liquor License Commissioners to pay a $325 fine for his club's Feb. 3 sale of alcohol to a minor - an undercover police cadet. The board suspended the club's license for two days.

"Any bar you go into, you can find liquor board violations," Jackson said. "We don't have any serious problems like shootings or beatings down at our club."

The liquor license suspension is not the first time the El Dorado has run afoul of city liquor laws. Liquor board files list several violations and other problems at the club over the past four years:

In addition to the February incident of selling alcohol to a minor, the club was cited for the same violation in February 1997.

On Feb. 28, 2000, the club was fined $1,375 for allowing customers to fondle dancers.

On Nov. 2, 1999, the city police vice squad warned the club to stop allowing its strippers to perform "lap dances" on patrons.

A Jan. 12, 1999, report in the liquor board file lists a complaint of a "patron assaulted by another patron."

An Oct. 18, 1997, report complains of a female employee being punched, knocked to the floor and kicked in the face by a customer.

From 1983 to 1987, the club was cited on several occasions for "solicitation for prostitution" and for liquor law violations, according to the file.

Other strip clubs in the city have had similar complaints filed against them.

"It [the El Dorado] has had some problems, but they all have problems," said Leonard R. Skolnik, the liquor board's chairman. "Compared to the other adult entertainment establishments, they have been one of the better ones."

Jackson said the strip club will be a high-class, well-run bar with Las Vegas-style entertainment that will draw conventioneers. He said his patrons will not pose a liability problem for his landlord.

"I want to create a Rolls-Royce of adult entertainment, the best kind of adult entertainment, a real tourist attraction," said Jackson, who has a long arrest record dating to the 1970s that includes convictions for manslaughter, resisting arrest and illegal possession of a gun by a felon.

Zollicoffer said the city will do everything it can to minimize its liability should there be any incidents at the strip club.

"It would be my position that any lease that we draft will shift the burden to the tenant for operating ... in a legal and lawful manner," Zollicoffer said.

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