Stepping up to better problem bars

Neighbors, liquor board tour businesses in effort to foster dialogue with owners


When a band of neighbors accompanied by four liquor board inspectors visited Retta's, bar manager George Tanner said he didn't know what to expect.

But after a brief tour of the Northeast Baltimore establishment, the inspectors handed Tanner a list of items that he must fix, including clearing debris from a fire exit. And irate neighbors told him they were fed up with the mess his patrons were making in streets and alleys.

It wasn't much fun for Tanner, who said he was manning the bar for his wife and sister-in-law. "I'm learning a lot," he said. "I'm learning that I don't want to be in the bar business."

The visit to Retta's was part of a new program offered by the city liquor board that officials hope will help residents deal with problem bars.

Acting liquor board Executive Secretary Samuel T. Daniels Jr., who is also chief liquor inspector, said he hopes such tours, dubbed "walk-alongs," will be duplicated across the city. His mission, he says, is not just to punish negligent tavern owners, but to foster a better understanding of liquor laws and to create partnerships between business owners and neighborhood groups.

"We're doing something new here," Daniels told Tanner. "The community is now our partner. You are part of their neighborhood, and I don't want you to be the bad neighbor. I want you to run a successful place and be a good neighbor."

Community groups have long complained that the liquor board wasn't doing enough to help them defend their neighborhoods against bar owners who let trash pile up behind their businesses and allow drug dealers to linger near their front doors.

And although it is almost impossible to prove that a problem bar is responsible for criminal activity in a neighborhood, residents say that such businesses can contribute to an atmosphere of neglect that attracts individuals who are breaking the law.

In recent months, the liquor board has lashed out at the owners of several problem bars, assessing large fines and, in some cases, revoking liquor licenses. Recently, the board created the Baltimore City Liquor Advisory Committee, which will be composed of community members, bar owners and liquor business representatives, to further encourage public engagement.

"The walk-alongs are a great idea and demonstrate once again that the new liquor board commissioners are trying to reconnect with the residential communities who have been neglected far too long," said Leigh Ratiner, a Canton resident who is heading the advisory committee, the membership of which has yet to be finalized.

During the tour last week in Northeast Baltimore, Daniels and his group, which included a police officer, visited three bars. They found similar problems at the taverns and also cited owners for various violations, including faulty sinks and insufficient employee records.

"I think it went really well," said Daniels of the first night of visits. "And the community was thrilled."

During the visit at Retta's, which has operated in the Coldstream neighborhood for many years, resident Mark Washington made it clear to Tanner that the community wants to see improvement.

"This is a community that has unified to bring about a fundamental change," said Washington, who is also executive director of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corp. "We don't want to be a dumping ground anymore."

The group also visited Garrett's Lounge II, a few blocks south of Retta's. There they talked with owner Jerrious Hill, who told neighbors that he wanted to work with them. But he said he has no control over the drug dealers who hang out on the corner across from his bar.

Daniels told Hill that he didn't want him to confront the dealers - that could be dangerous - but encouraged the bar owner to call the police when the dealers come around.

"I guess I ain't doing enough," said Hill, whose bar was far more tidy than Retta's. "I guess I can't make everyone happy. I know they are trying to do the right thing, though."

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