Residents and bar owners square off in Federal Hill
Published: April 20, 2011
Some Federal Hill residents are challenging four liquor licenses this month, citing mounting problems with noise, trash, and violence stemming from some of the 35 liquor licenses in and around the Cross Street Market.
The liquor board complaints are part of an ongoing battle between a neighborhood association and a clutch of bar owners who in recent years have expanded their nighttime operations and marketed the area to young adults. Last Thursday the liquor board voted to renew the license on the neighborhood’s first challenge, against a license formerly associated with Billabong and before that Turner’s on East Cross Street, because it had been “dormant for at least 16 months.” Liquor license law says a license that is unused for more than a year is dead, but the board seldom retires licenses just because they have gone unused.
“There will be another conference to talk about the duration” of that dormancy, says Brian McComas, a consultant to the licensee and president of the Federal Hill Hospitality Association, an organization that, among other things, arranges and pays for police overtime for member bars and restaurants. In the case of this license, the delay in reopening under a new name in a nearby location has been caused by common business conditions, he says. “The case law is going to determine everything. Realistically, no one is going to take something from someone that they paid for legally, ’cause you got a better deal to move to another place.”
On April 21 the board will hold a hearing to determine if Ryleigh’s Oyster Bar, at 36 E. Cross St., should keep its license. Petitioners say owners Jennifer McComas (Brian’s wife) and Thomas Strawser have not paid their taxes. (Brian McComas says they’ve been paid, and that Strawser is no longer associated with the business.) And on April 28 the board will hear two more cases against Federal Hill bars. Illusions, a magic-themed club on the 1000 block of South Charles Street, has an unauthorized kitchen and is hosting performances on its second floor in violation of its liquor license, the petition claims. The Stalking Horse, at 26 E. Cross St., is the site of loitering, littering, and disorderly conduct when patrons leave, according to the complaint. It was also the site of a December assault in which two patrons of the bar stabbed another, according to a police report attached to the complaint.
“There was no stabbing,” McComas says. “Nobody pulled out a knife, nobody broke a bottle off like the Wild West. It was football-crowd kind of stuff.”
According to the police report, a 26-year-old accountant was stabbed outside the bar after getting into a dispute with two men inside. Brian McComas says the weapon was a broken metal grate that had been around the base of a tree, a choice of weapon he contrasts with, say, a concealed knife. “We’re disappointed. It’s an incident. It’s unfortunate,” McComas says. “Why would you say it’s a stabbing, put that spin on it?” (Attempts to reach Stalking Horse co-owner Mark McFaul for comment were unsuccessful.)
Paul Robinson, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association and the lead petitioner on the complaints, says the wording on the police report is good enough for him. He says he finds it odd that the report was not in the establishment’s liquor board file, as is routine. “My understanding—from liquor board staff and police—is that the police report is held in the file downtown and that a liquor inspector is assigned to retrieve that, and it’s their responsibility to bring them back,” Robinson says.
Robinson says he signed the petitions as a private person, and not in his capacity as president of the neighborhood association, which is not a party to the dispute. Bar owners say Robinson, who in recent years has taken the lead in several high-profile battles against bar expansions, is acting vindictively and often out of step with the majority of his neighbors. Robinson says he’s just trying to get the neighborhood’s mix of businesses back to the “balance” it had until a few years ago when the bars began to dominate.
“The Business Association, the Hospitality Association, and Federal Hill Mainstreet have pooled their resources to market this place for young people to congregate, and hopefully strike up a meaningful relationship over alcoholic beverages,” Robinson laughs. “As many as five nights a week, the police are forced to shut down the streets in order to prevent someone from being hit by a car.”
Robinson says a Hospitality Association-organized St. Patrick’s Day “pub crawl” clogged neighborhood streets and sidewalks with drunks and prompted the petitions against the bars. But one of the petitions has caused particular neighborhood friction.
Illusions does not have dance parties and $2 drink specials. But its live-entertainment license gives owner Ken Horsman the potential to be even more disruptive, Robinson says.
Robinson has a history with Horsman, who declined to sign a neighborhood agreement with Robinson’s group before opening Illusions’ live magic shows. The lack of that signed agreement was part of what moved Liquor Board Chairman Stephan Fogleman to vote against the club’s expansion into entertainment last year. The other big reason was Robinson’s then-pending zoning appeal covering much of the same ground, Fogleman said at the hearing. Robinson lost the zoning appeal in court; he called the decision a “dangerous legal precedent” in a letter to The Baltimore Sun.
Horsman, a former Ringling Bros. clown who operated a magician’s shop at the bar’s location for generations, and whose son, Spencer, performs card tricks and a Houdini-inspired straightjacket escape for patrons, says he’s not in violation—and doesn’t even have a kitchen. The stage petitioners complain about is on the first floor, up a few steps from the front room, but a whole story below the second-floor storage area. Horsman says he opened his themed club expressly because he did not want to operate a typical bar.
“We have a concept,” Horsman says, sitting in the back row at the liquor board hearing on April 14. “There’s bars, and then there’s concepts. If we have to go through the expense we’re going through, what do you think is going to happen to our business? We’re going to be bound to change.”
Robinson interprets Horsman’s concern over changing his concept as a threat rather than a lament: “’If I don’t get my way, I’ll have to convert to a dollar-a-holler beer bar,’” Robinson says.
Neighborhood resident Lars Johanson quit the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association over Robinson’s pursuit of the Horsmans. Johanson says he’s upset about some of the effects of the nightlife boom, but “you’re saying that [the Horsmans] are causing a problem. They’re really not. The establishment they opened up flies in the face of the idea that Federal Hill is the new Fells Point.”
Robinson regards Horsman’s entertainment license as far too broad, and his refusal to sign a neighborhood agreement as a bad omen. “In my humble opinion—actually it’s not so humble at this point—they made a series of bad business decisions,’ Robinson says. “This could evolve into an extremely bad influence on the neighborhood.”
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