Bill to serve up options

While liquor plan may bring chain restaurants, some fear it would hurt smaller operations


More onions will bloom in Anne Arundel County.

Outback Steakhouse Inc., which serves "Bloomin' Onions," thick steaks and Australia-themed foods in its chain of restaurants, and other major restaurant chains are most likely to benefit from a bill that passed this week that would increase the number of liquor licenses that an owner can hold from two to six.

The measure, which passed on the final day of the 90-day General Assembly session, also stipulates that at least two of the restaurants must be in specified commercial districts or community revitalization zones.

Although small-restaurant owners express fears that more Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's will push family operations out of business, county leaders say more restaurants will spur economic growth while spicing up Saturday nights.

"The bill will allow more choice and diversity of restaurants in our growth areas," said County Executive Janet S. Owens. "People in Maryland City, Odenton and up by BWI are always telling me that they need more restaurants."

Aaron Greenfield, president and chief executive of the county's economic development arm, said, "Demand for restaurants far exceeds supply."

National restaurant chains have long eyed expanding in the county but were prevented by the licensing restrictions, said Sushant Sidh, county government relations officer.

The Outback chain, which has five restaurants in the county under different owners, is set to open four more restaurants under the new regulations, Sidh said.

The new guidelines will attract restaurant chains to depressed areas in the northern part of the county and growing neighborhoods in the western part of the county, Sidh said.

"People want to be able to shop, eat and live all in one area," said Del. Mary Ann Love, the chair of the county's legislative delegation who introduced the state bill. Restaurants are needed to fill town centers under construction in areas such as Odenton, Parole and Glen Burnie, said Love, a Democrat.

Restrictions on liquor licenses, which Love described as the most stringent in the state, date from the Prohibition era. Similar measures to increase the number of licenses issued had failed, Love said, but renewed construction on the town centers spurred interest in the legislation this year. All 20 members of the county delegation supported the bill, which will become law if signed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

According to the new bill, an owner applying for a second liquor license must agree to open the restaurant in one of the following areas:

The Annapolis Towne Centre at Parole;

The proposed Odenton Town Center;

The area surrounding Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport;

The Glen Burnie renewal area;

The Route 198 corridor, from Route 32 to the Prince George's County border in Laurel;

A designated community revitalization area;

Other locations in Severn, Edgewater, Mayo and Pasadena; or

A shopping center of at least 1 million square feet.

A third restaurant must also be located in one of the specified areas, although a fourth could be located anywhere in the county. A fifth and sixth restaurant could also be located anywhere in the county as long as the owner maintains a restaurant in a community revitalization area.

An individual or group can directly own four of the restaurants. Two additional licenses will be granted if the ownership is indirect, such as through a franchise, licensing or concession agreement or a shared name, profits or stockholders.

Owners of small restaurants worry that they won't be able to compete with the big chains under the new licensing guidelines.

"We're kind of hometown people," said Robert Snyder, owner and operator Snyder's of Severna Park. His brother, Vernon Snyder Sr., runs Snyder's at Willow Grove, which was founded by their father, George "Bumps" Snyder, in 1935.

"We like this county," Snyder said. "But they make it kind of hard to do business sometimes. When an Outback opens up next to you, it hurts the mom-and-pop people, the ones that are just getting by."

The Anne Arundel County Licensed Beverage Association, which represents both large and small restaurants, had helped defeat similar bills in the past. But the association's president, Chuck Ferrar, supported the measure this year, Sidh said.

The association and Ferrar did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

Small restaurant owners should not feel threatened, Owens said. She's confident that county residents will be pleased with the new options.

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