Setting the table for restaurants in Randallstown

Approved bills would ease limits on liquor licenses to draw national chains

April 19, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

They've got white-collar jobs, young families and neat lawns. What the residents of the fast-growing Randallstown area don't have is a single Chili's, Applebee's or T.G.I. Friday's to call their own.

But the days of the Liberty Road corridor lacking these staples of suburbia may be coming to a close.

This year, the General Assembly passed two bills to get at what economic development officials think may be the root of the problem: a provision of Baltimore County's Prohibition-era liquor laws.

Aside from certain rare exceptions, an individual or corporation could only hold three liquor licenses in Baltimore County. Faced with the limits in the past, national restaurant chains have generally gone to Towson, Timonium, Owings Mills and White Marsh.

Randallstown, despite its middle-class residents, hasn't made the cut.

One of the bills increases the limit from three licenses to four. The other allows for a fifth, provided one of them is in the Liberty Road area.

"This is a fabulous thing," said Henry Weisenberg, executive director of the Liberty Road Business Association. "This will go a long way toward making economic development feasible on Liberty Road."

A constant complaint of Randallstown residents in recent years has been that the collection of strip malls and fast-food joints that line Liberty Road doesn't reflect the taste of the people who live there.

"There are no high-quality restaurants with liquor licenses in Randallstown," said County Councilman Kenneth N. Oliver, a Democrat who represents the area. "If you want a glass of wine or a beer with your dinner, there's no place to go."

This is not to say Randallstown is completely bereft of restaurants. Besides the fast food, a cafeteria-style soul food cafe has been open for about two years, and Liberty Road boasts a couple of notable ethnic restaurants. But the places where families take their kids for chicken fingers and co-workers meet for happy hour have passed Randallstown by.

Weisenberg said he thinks Randallstown has many of the elements it needs to attract a major national chain, and is working to develop the others.

Officials at restaurant chains have said they look for easy transportation access, proximity to stores and large populations of office workers.

Although Randallstown isn't as large an employment center as Towson or Owings Mills, Northwest Hospital Center is generating an increasing number of jobs, other businesses are expanding, and the Ravens are set to open a corporate headquarters and training center just up the road.

If Owings Mills Boulevard is extended to Liberty Road, the area would be even more attractive, Weisenberg said.

But, he added, when he talks to chains, the deal breaker has always been the liquor laws.

Wally Butkus, a partner of Connecticut-based Restaurant Research LLC, said liquor typically accounts for 15 percent to 25 percent of sales at casual dining chains.

Baltimore County isn't alone in limiting the number of licenses an individual or corporation can have, part of the state's system of liquor laws, which generally discourage big business interest in the liquor industry. Carroll County allows chains just one license, and Baltimore City allows three.

But in recent years, other area counties have seen looser laws as an economic development tool. A 2000 law expanded the number of liquor licenses an individual or corporation could hold in Anne Arundel County from one to two in an effort to spark redevelopment efforts. Howard and Harford counties allow a second license in some circumstances for a "deluxe restaurant," one in which an owner has made a certain level of investment.

The liquor lobby in Baltimore County has often been wary about changes to the laws. Not only would more licenses increase competition for existing license holders but the licenses can be bought and sold, and the going rate in some parts of the county runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Last year, for example, state Sen. James Brochin barely won approval for a bill to bring additional liquor licenses to Towson for economic development because of stiff initial opposition from the Baltimore County Licensed Beverage Association.

But David F. Mister, a lobbyist for the association, said County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and his aides worked behind the scenes with the industry in the past few months to find ways to achieve the county's revitalization goals without unduly harming existing license holders. The association supported the bills, as well as one to allow the transfer of licenses to the site of Hunt Valley Mall, which is being redeveloped.

Smith said the new liquor bills are key to the revitalization of older communities, one of the top priorities of his administration.

"I think it is going to be significant both from a renaissance standpoint but also from the standpoint of people who have plenty of money to spend in their community," Smith said. "They go elsewhere because they don't have outlets that are applicable to them to spend their resources in."

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