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Motown Beat

A Bitter Taste

Pigtown neighbors beat back Bohager-linked bar

Photo: Frank Klein, License: N/A

Frank Klein

Pigtown residents (from left) Carol Ott, Myles Michelin, Narda Carrol (with Brownie the Dog), Rodney Carrol, Dan Cosgrove, Beth Hawks, Connie Ely (with Kai), Clausen Ely (with L.C.), Ditra Edwards, Bill Marker, Ben Wechsler (with Eloise), and Terry Smith successfully opposed a liquor license for proposed nightclub ambrosia.

On Feb. 10, the city Liquor Board denied a license to a group of people planning what Pigtown neighbors feared would be a raucous club on the 700 block of Washington Boulevard after dozens of residents showed up at the hearing to oppose it.

“I swear, yesterday restored my faith in this city & the ‘process’ of working hard, gathering the facts & standing united,” community activist Beth Hawks wrote in an e-mail to supporters after the liquor board’s decision.

The hearing—actually an extension of one that began on Dec. 2, 2010—capped a months-long research and resistance project by several Southwest Baltimore neighborhood associations. The original proposal, for a nightclub called Ambrosia, seemed on the verge of approval before a series of incidents—and what neighborhood activists and a City Council member call misrepresentations by the club’s owner—combined to derail it.

One considerable concern raised involved the question of insufficient security. “At one time, the security plan called for 10 security guards when they’re open,” said Councilmember William Cole (D-11th District) before testifying in opposition to the license transfer on Feb. 10. “I represent some of the biggest clubs in Baltimore, and I don’t know of any that would have 10 security staff.”

The original security company was to be Worldwide Investigations, owned by Don Fitzgerald, a city liquor inspector who presented himself to neighbors as a consultant to the club’s owners. After neighbors presented a videotape of the Dec. 2 meeting to the liquor board, Fitzgerald took a voluntary two-week suspension from his job pending possible discipline. His case is “under investigation,” according to Sam Daniels, the chief liquor inspector.

Legendary Baltimore club owner Damian Bohager also appeared at early meetings with neighborhood groups, and at the liquor board, speaking on behalf of the club. Bohager, whose eponymous Fells Point hot spot closed in 2004 after years of neighborhood complaints, is listed in state records as Maryland’s top tax scofflaw, with nearly $600,000 in debt outstanding.

“We have already spent tens of thousands of dollars on permits, drawing, and construction,” Bohager wrote in a Dec. 27, 2010 letter to the liquor board. “We do not feel that the Liquor Board intended to allow a community organization to have an unlimited period of time to hold up the transfer of a license, especially when there was not a protest within the allotted time period after posting.”

Bohager has since contended he was merely brokering the liquor-license transfer, according to neighbors. He could not be reached for comment.

Tiffany Felder, a mental health and addiction worker whose license application lists her as Ambrosia’s 100 percent owner, lists a rowhouse on Washington Village’s Ryan Street as her home address on the license application, though Ambrosia Music and Lounge LLC, for which she is resident agent, lists an address in Waldorf. That is also the address to which Felder’s vehicle was registered, according to online court records. She filed for bankruptcy in 2005 but claims to have been an entrepreneur since 2006 with interests in both a Suitland car stereo shop and a Washington, D.C., restaurant called Nakfa, which appears to be closed. In the application for a liquor-license transfer, under “source of funds” Felder wrote “personal savings.”

Ryan Bruchey, a neighborhood activist, says the Dec. 2 meeting about Ambrosia featured Felder’s “husband or boyfriend” Ray Proctor presenting himself as the club’s representative. Neighbors say Proctor’s cousin owns the Steel Drum Café at 771 Washington Blvd., which state tax records indicate is owned by Bernard Sanders and Richard Davis. At the Feb. 10 liquor board meeting, Proctor sat in the back row. He told a reporter he is Felder’s husband and, asked if he operates another bar in the neighborhood, he replied, “I have several businesses down there.”

Neighbors opposing the club were slow off the mark. Francine Bey, president of community organization Citizens of Pigtown, tried for weeks to get her group’s usual legal representation—the Community Law Center (CLC)—to help vet Ambrosia’s application. But just before the Dec. 2 hearing, Robin Jacobs of the CLC said she could not represent Citizens of Pigtown because the CLC already represented Pigtown Main Street, a business advocacy group that was on record in support of the club.

“Tiffany Felder has worked closely with Pigtown Main Street to develop a business concept that would work well for the community,” Pigtown Main Street’s Executive Director Daryl Landy wrote in a Dec. 1, 2010 letter to the Liquor Board.

Cole told the liquor board he was “disturbed” that Landy executed an agreement with the bar owners before the neighborhood associations got a chance to vet them. “Pigtown Main Street is not a community organization,” Cole testified at the Feb. 10 hearing. Landy could not be reached for comment.

The inability of Citizens of Pigtown, which is the officially recognized community organization in the neighborhood, to get a lawyer is what prompted the hearing’s extension. But Stephen Fogleman, chairman of the Baltimore City Liquor License Board, said at the Dec. 2 meeting that he hoped an agreement would be reached between Ambrosia’s owners and the neighborhood within two weeks “with the understanding and hope that if an agreement is presented . . . the board would need to do nothing but a quick letter to the file to approve this application.”

Citing that language, Mel Kodenski, Ambrosia’s lawyer, lectured Fogleman on Feb. 10, contending that no new evidence should be presented. “We object to anything that would be put into the record after the Dec. 2 hearing,” Kodenski said sourly. “[Felder] did what you said. What else do you want? Blood?”

“You’re absolutely twisting my words here,” Fogleman told Kodenski, who appears frequently before the board on behalf of license applicants. Fogleman repeatedly overruled Kodenski’s objections, allowing the neighbors to present more than 20 letters in opposition to the club, citing concerns about parking, trash, and the credibility of Felder, who had by then withdrawn the parts of the application seeking live entertainment.

After hearing the neighbors’ opposition and declining to let them “cross examine” Felder, who did not speak at this hearing, the board denied the liquor-license transfer. “We have an overwhelming lack of public need and desire,” Fogleman said.

“I’m sure you got an earful from those racial-profiling neighbors,” Felder, who is African-American, told a reporter before the hearing. She had previously agreed to answer questions after the hearing but after the result was announced said, “Not now.” Kodenski declined to answer questions as well. Asked why he worked so hard to keep his client from speaking or answering questions during the hearing, he said, “Every time she talks there is misrepresentation” by the neighborhood organizations.

Proctor faced a zoning board hearing on behalf of the club on Feb. 15, after this issue went to press, and Ambrosia could open without a liquor license. Felder has 30 days to appeal the liquor board’s decision.

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