Capital picks up pace for session

Legislators: Annapolis prepares for the General Assembly's `invasion.'

January 08, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

They're stocking up on bagels at Chick & Ruth's Delly, calling in more waiters and waitresses at Harry Browne's and lining up more kinds of expensive single-malt scotch at the Loews hotel bar.

Throughout Annapolis, businesses and residents are bracing for the start of the General Assembly's 90-day legislative session tomorrow. Soon, the tiny streets of the small waterfront community, quiet and almost empty recently, will come back to life. And the restaurants and hotels that have begun to ache from the end of the tourist season will be taken over by men and women in suits and identification badges.

"It's the 90-day invasion," said Democratic Del. Michael E. Busch, who represents the city.

Though much more subdued than the sessions of decades past - when politicians could be found dancing and drinking into the night at Fran O'Brien's on Main Street - it is still an exciting time in the state capital, when the streets fill with the bustle of political business being done.

"There is a busyness on the streets - both a seriousness and joviality in the places people gather," said Mayor Ellen O. Moyer.

Yesterday, the city's Public Works Department raised 60 state flags on Main and Francis streets to welcome back the General Assembly.

The session hits Annapolis during an otherwise slow time, especially with tourism and other business down slightly in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Though ethics laws have curtailed some of the wining and dining of legislators that used to take place - something that restaurateurs say has hurt their business - the session is still a boon for the restaurants and hotels, gyms, coffee shops, dry cleaners, grocery stores, florists, movie theaters and other businesses the legislators frequent.

Some private citizens also cash in on the season, renting out their homes to legislators or lobbyists and heading for points south or working temporary state jobs for extra money.

Throughout town, delegates and senators, staffers and lobbyists began moving into their temporary abodes.

GOP Sen. Nancy Jacobs of Harford County chooses to rent a home instead of staying at a hotel during her stay in Annapolis.

"I like the atmosphere of being in my own house and not feeling like I am living out of a suitcase," she said.

The practice has spawned a mutually beneficial relationship between legislators and city residents, said Lou Cotta, owner of Annapolis Accommodations, which rents homes to legislators and others in town for the session.

Though she will not say how many houses the company rented for the session, Cotta said the homeowners are mostly retirees who are able to earn extra money while vacationing as their homes are taken care of by well-respected tenants.

Other legislators opt instead for full-service accommodations and book rooms at hotels, historic inns and bed-and-breakfasts. About 40 of the 188 state legislators, and a number of lobbyists, have rooms at Loews Annapolis Hotel on West Street.

General manager Dave Watson said the hotel tailors its food and drink choices to the legislators' preferences, offering more home-style comfort food and lighter fare in the dining room, and adding a few extra brands of expensive scotch and other liquors to its bar.

Downtown restaurants are also preparing by scheduling extra cooks and servers this week and ordering more food.

Chick & Ruth's Delly on Main Street - where sandwiches bear the names of Maryland politicians and the Pledge of Allegiance is recited every morning - is ordering more bagels, preparing for more catering orders and bringing in an extra cook and two extra servers during the session. The deli is a favorite for the legislative crowd, especially for breakfast, when it accounts for about half of the restaurants' clientele, said owner Ted Levitt.

"We rely on them in the wintertime, that is for sure, because we lose the locals and the tourists," Levitt said.

When the legislature is in session, many residents stay away to avoid the crowds. In a city with severe parking problems, the session leaves little room for others.

At Galway Bay Irish Restaurant and Pub on Maryland Avenue, owner Michael Galway said business at his 3-year-old restaurant is up 20 percent during the session. But he knows he loses locals who won't venture in town during what he jokingly calls "the three months of misery."

To capture those customers, Galway recently opened another restaurant, Killarney House, just outside Annapolis in Davidsonville.

"We tell our clients to go to Killarney House if it is too busy down here," Galway said.

Rusty Romo, owner of Harry Browne's on State Circle, said he has scheduled two extra lunchtime servers and put books with legislators' pictures in the back for them to reference. He said their business is a welcome boost during the slow winter months.

Romo remembers a time when the legislature brought even more money to Annapolis, before ethics laws over the past several years ended the expensive dinners for individual legislators paid for by lobbyists. Last year, he said, the new laws resulted in a 10 percent to 15 percent decrease in business compared with previous winters.

"It is still a boon. It is still great to have them," he said. "But there were times when it was a little busier."

Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano remembers those times - in the 1970s and 1980s when Fran O'Brien's (now O'Brien's) was the place to be.

Then, Bereano regularly spent almost $4,000 on flowers for legislators the first day of session.

Now the only thing for lobbyists to do is "smile and try to be nice," Bereano said.

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