Hopes for a resurgent Oakland Mills Village Center in Columbia were dealt a setback this week when the county liquor board denied a license for a restaurant that was to replace the Last Chance Saloon.
The board, made up of the four County Council members, denied the license for Rusty's Chill n' Grill by a 3-1 vote Monday night.
Board members said they felt the applicant, Haluk "Alec" Kantar, 35, of Kings Contrivance, had lied on his license application. One member said Kantar's record of violations was the worst he had seen.
"I was very shocked," said Kantar, who has stopped work on the restaurant. "What do I do now? I don't know," he said, though a court appeal is possible.
It is the kind of bad luck Oakland Mills boosters have become used to, one said, as they struggle to revitalize the neighborhood commercial center after losing a Metro supermarket and an Exxon gas station in 2001 and the Last Chance Saloon, which closed in January. Plans to help the center by building an apartment house for seniors on the gas station site were dashed this year when Exxon-Mobil refused to sell the land to a developer.
"This is unfortunate. It's very unfortunate. However, in Oakland Mills we've become like the arcade game Whack-a-Mole. You hit us down in one place, and we pop up in another," said Barbara Russell, the village's representative on the Columbia Council.
A Food Lion supermarket is scheduled to open Nov. 17. And Russell is confident a new restaurant eventually will be in place.
"Whatever happens, we know this is a real prime site for a restaurant," she said. "We will end up with a thriving restaurant there."
Village manager Sandy Cederbaum said the Food Lion and the village are planning a community welcoming festival Nov. 20. "We'll have bands and giveaways to celebrate the supermarket opening and to thank the center merchants" for staying, she said.
Ken Keepers, owner of Oakland Mills Liquors, said the new grocery store will bring back customers and could boost his business 20 percent.
But "we don't want an empty bar next to the center," he said. Rusty's would bring people from other areas to Oakland Mills, giving the center exposure to more customers, he said. Denial of the license is "very disappointing."
Kantar acknowledged that he was "ill prepared" for the hearing, where he appeared without a lawyer. Instead of a routine approval of his license, Kantar got a rude surprise.
Only east Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes, who represents Oakland Mills, voted in favor of the license, arguing that despite Kantar's record, "I think it's worth taking a chance."
Kantar said he has stopped installation of carpeting in the building, where he said he has done $100,000 of redecoration.
The board was armed with a report of liquor board and District Court cases prepared by county police Detective Martin Johnson.
Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon pointed to the liquor license application on which Kantar wrote "no" to questions asking whether he had other liquor licenses (he has had three in five years) or past criminal violations.
At the meeting, Merdon and west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman said they believed Kantar tried to deceive them with false answers.
Kantar operates a restaurant in Beltsville, he said, and has interests in another family operation called the Grand Marquis Cafe in Olney.
Other problems board members brought up included an adulterated liquor bottle found by state inspectors, financial problems and an incident of serving a minor in 2001, which Kantar blamed on his brother.
Kantar was fined $2,056 in Montgomery County District Court in 1996 for failure to pay wages, court records show. He also told the board he has resolved a three-year legal battle over a closed Silver Spring restaurant that cost him $150,000 in legal fees and left him strapped for cash.
Merdon said he was angered by Kantar's claims not to remember two incidents - 11 and 15 years ago - when he failed to appear in court. "This is the worst record I've ever seen. The worst," Merdon said.
"I don't see any way in the world you could have answered `no' on all these questions without an intent to deceive," Ulman said at one point.
Kantar said the liquor bottle with altered contents was left from a previous owner. The financial problems from the Silver Spring restaurant resulted from a business dispute and what he called harassment by Montgomery County liquor authorities.
"I do what I can to run a clean operation," he said. At the hearing, he blamed some problems on members of his extended family and a real estate broker who he said helped him fill out the liquor license application form in August.
"I usually don't have any problems. I have a fairly good track record," Kantar said during the hearing. He signed a 10-year lease for the building, he said.
The village center is owned by Kimco Realty Corp. of New Hyde Park, N.Y.