Liquor licenses focus of lobbying

Brochin and Gardina pushing a bill to transfer six of them to Towson

February 11, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

With the Baltimore County liquor lobby's biggest defenders in the General Assembly out of office, a handful of county politicians is trying to crack the decades-old system that keeps scores of excess liquor licenses in the shrinking precincts of the east side and limits them in the growing communities to the west.

Dreaming of a Little Italy of restaurants on the Towson traffic circle, Sen. James Brochin and County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina are pushing a bill in the General Assembly that would allow a half-dozen liquor licenses for sit-down restaurants, not bars, to be transferred to the county seat.

They see the idea as a key component in an effort to revitalize Towson's urban center, envisioning a mix of offices, residences, shopping and entertainment. A concentration of restaurants is necessary to make that happen, they say, and to get restaurants, liquor licenses are needed.

"Right now, there is a significant number of vacant properties and a significant number of underdeveloped properties, and we felt that one of the starts to try to help stimulate business in there would be to draw in some major national restaurant chains or local restaurants, but the current system makes it very difficult to obtain licenses in Towson," Gardina said.

He noted that Dave and Buster's, a national chain of restaurants/game emporiums, a sort of adult version of Chuck E. Cheese's, has expressed interest in Towson.

Such a major entertainment attraction would bring existing shops and restaurants new patrons and be a catalyst for new businesses, he said, but would be impossible without a liquor license.

Supporters lost

Although the liquor lobby lost major friends in the county's legislative delegation last year when Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell resigned, and Sen. Diane DeCarlo lost in the November election - both are Democrats with backgrounds in the tavern trade - the industry's well-financed trade group, the Baltimore County Licensed Beverage Association, has vowed to fight an effort that it contends would hurt existing restaurants.

"I think it's a mistake, and ultimately all you do is do violence to your existing business owners and licensees," said David F. Mister, a longtime attorney for the association.

A finite market

"The concept of economic development fails if you fail to address the needs of your existing business people. ... I believe you have a relatively finite market, and it just moves around. When you open a new restaurant, it's the same number of dollars. You're just moving them around."

Jack Milani, the association's legislative director, said restaurants in the Towson area don't appear to be turning people away, and some, such as Pizzeria Uno's on York Road, have gone out of business recently.

Liquor licenses are allotted by election district based on population and a combination of exceptions.

Towson has nine licenses more than its quota, Milani said. The east-side district, which includes Essex, Middle River and parts of Dundalk, is 133 licenses over its quota.

Restaurant, bar and liquor store owners buy licenses assuming a certain level of competition, and it would be unfair to increase that level of competition later, Milani said.

"If you've gotten into that business based on a set of rules, basically I don't think you get to the fourth quarter and change the rules on people who are already in," Milani said.

That line of thinking is "anti-capitalist," Brochin said. His plan, modeled on a 1988 law that allowed the transfer of up to six licenses to Pikesville, would not add licenses to the county and would not force anyone to sell or transfer a license.

The good survive

It's up to the free market to determine whether anyone takes advantage of the plan and up to the market to decide which restaurants thrive, Brochin said.

"At the end of the day, the restaurants that have good food and offer good service are the restaurants that are going to survive, and those are the ones that have survived," Brochin said.

"There are places like Michael's in Timonium that survive and flourish because they have good food. Unfortunately, Towson has had very few places like that. ... If six additional licenses would offer that stability for an upscale restaurant to come in, that would be a good opportunity."

Mister said laws of the marketplace don't apply to the liquor trade.

"The alcoholic beverage business is not free enterprise and has not been free enterprise since they repealed Prohibition," he said. "It's one of the most highly regulated industries."

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Pikesville-Owings Mills Democrat, pushed the Pikesville bill through in 1988 in hopes of spurring revitalization there. She said that a small number of restaurants have taken advantage of it, and that none has gone out of business because of it. She is co-sponsoring Brochin's Towson bill and working to repeal a sunset provision on the Pikesville transfer law.

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