The Sportsmen’s Lounge faces July eviction to make way for grocery store
Published: May 4, 2011
Verria Moore expected an eviction letter someday, but receiving it was still a blow. Dated April 4, it came from the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), the quasi-public city agency that owns the aging shopping center where Moore’s business, the Sportsmen’s Lounge, is located. The BDC has been planning for a new grocery store there, and the letter announced that the lounge—once known as one of Baltimore’s most notable destinations for live jazz—has until July 3 to vacate the premises.
“I’m going to call Brodie,” Moore says, referring to BDC president M. J. “Jay” Brodie, “and ask for an extension.” Even if she gets one, though, she concedes her days are numbered. “I know I need to move,” Moore says as she sits in the lounge early on a recent Friday morning, shuffling through voluminous paperwork about her predicament. “I agree, this neighborhood needs a grocery store. And everybody else on the block already moved out, but nobody else has a liquor license.”
Moore hopes to preserve the Sportsmen’s so she can restore the jazz scene that once thrived there, saying she has a “big jazz event” in the works, “with all those musicians who are still around that used to play here” during its heyday in the 1970s. The business has concentrated in recent years on serving carry-out patrons over a counter walled with Plexiglas, but if she could find another venue, she says the Sportsmen’s Lounge would try to meet the local market for live jazz.
Above the lounge’s bar hangs a long row of photographs of the jazz musicians, sports figures, and entertainers who either performed or frequented there in better times. Next to shots of singer Lou Rawls and boxer Sugar Ray Leonard are those of jazz figures such as Richard “Grooves” Holmes, Arnold K. Sterling, the Ronnie Dawson Trio, Joe Lee Wilson, Carol Mitchell, and Jennifer Jones.
Music journalist and City Paper contributor Geoffrey Himes cut his teeth as a jazz writer by hanging out at the Sportsmen’s Lounge, he wrote in a recent e-mail from New Orleans, where he was covering JazzFest for NPR. “Back in the late ’70s,” Himes wrote, “I used to spend a lot of time” there, “especially when the trio of saxophonist Mickey Fields, organist Charles Covington, and drummer Johnny Polite were playing. Here were three world-class musicians who had, for various personal reasons, decided to stay in Baltimore rather than hit the road.” The experience “was an invaluable lesson to a young journalist that great art could be found in the unlikeliest of places. It didn’t have to happen in New York or London; it could happen in one’s own backyard in Baltimore.”
The jazz scene at the Sportsmen’s Lounge was established in the late 1960s by Lenny Moore (no relation to Verria Moore), the former Baltimore Colts Hall-of-Famer. He remembers feeling tentative about getting into “the alcohol business,” he says, but “I was a jazz man, and, because I went to see jazz in many cities, I knew a lot of these top jazz musicians, like Jimmy Smith. And I thought, maybe I can get them to come on by and make some appearances—I’m going to make this a jazz house.” He did, after getting some seed money from Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom and purchasing the place from its former owner, boxing promoter Albert Flora.
Organist Greg Hatza remembers when the Sportsmen’s Lounge was a top-shelf establishment. “When Lenny had it,” Hatza says, “it was like a really upscale jazz supper club. You had to have a coat and tie to get in, and there were steak and lobster dinners.” At the time, Hatza was still a teenager, and Lenny Moore had brought him down to Baltimore from Reading, Pa., their shared hometown, to become a regular performer at the club. “It was a great experience for me,” Hatza says. “I would get a chance to meet and play with some of the great jazz musicians of the time.”
After a while, Hatza remembers, the neighborhood began to deteriorate and the club “started going a little downhill” as it changed hands. Howard Park now has bounced back a bit—to the point where BDC, in its press release for the new grocery store development, calls it a “stable middle-class” community. While it no longer has space available for the Sportsmen’s Lounge, Moore is hoping to find somewhere to reopen where a historic name in Baltimore jazz would be seen as a welcome sign of improvement.
Transferring a liquor license to a new location can be tricky, and Moore’s efforts to move the license for the Sportsmen’s Lounge, which public records show has been at its current address on Gwynn Oak Avenue in Howard Park since 1934, have so far failed. By law, licenses are not allowed within 300 feet of a church or a school, and they may not be moved outside of the state legislative district of their current location. These restrictions, along with the need for live-entertainment zoning, have limited Moore’s options. Two sites she explored—the long-abandoned Ambassador Theatre and the Five Mile House nightclub—haven’t panned out.
Moore’s imminent eviction comes as the city prepares to move ahead with the grocery store plans. According to Leon Pinkett, a BDC senior economic-development officer who is managing the project, the city has spent about $4.5 million assembling 5.6 acres of land for the project. Though it awaits final approval by the city’s Board of Estimates, the land-disposition agreement calls for the developer—ShopRite of Liberty Heights Real Estate LLC—to purchase the property from BDC for $2 million and spend a total of $13.5 million building a full-service ShopRite supermarket there.
Public records show that BDC in 2008 acquired the shopping center where the Sportsmen’s Lounge is located, which has a tax-assessment value of $470,500, for a little more than $1 million. The seller was Gwynn Associates LLP, a partnership that included Gilbert Sapperstein, who in 2005 pleaded guilty to a bribery scheme that stole millions from the city public school system (“Hot Contract,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 26, 2005; “Quick Release,” Mobtown Beat, March 29, 2006). The partnership had purchased the shopping center in 1985 for $272,000.
“[Moore] is aggressively looking for a new location on a daily basis,” the BDC’s Pinkett says, “and we are hopeful that she will find one.”
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