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Dry Md. town of Damascus prepares to get wet after vote

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At the Music Cafe on Ridge Road, the restaurant local residents call the hippest in town, owner Randy Anderson says he's thrilled he'll soon be able to add beer and wine to his menu for the first time.

A few blocks away, at the down-home Red Rooster restaurant just off Main Street, owner Pat Miller says she'd sooner close her 10-seat establishment than serve booze.

"I don't need the problems that would bring. I thought things were just fine the way they were," she says.

This week, residents of this rural town of about 15,000 in upper Montgomery County finally put to bed a question that has divided the community since 1884: Should it allow the sale of alcohol or not?

By a margin of 2-1, voters decided Tuesday to repeal the ban, ending the town's status as one of the last remaining dry towns in Maryland.

The community had voted on the issue in 1933, 1976, 1984, 1992 and 1996 — always with the same result, though the margin of victory for those favoring the ban had grown slimmer each time.

A number of activists in town, including Randy Scritchfield, a financial planner and former president of the local Chamber of Commerce, have been pushing the repeal for years.

The Maryland House of Delegates unanimously passed legislation supporting the change last March. The Senate agreed, and Gov. Martin O'Malley lent his signature, placing Question C on last week's ballot.

Those who wanted to keep Damascus dry had long argued that alcohol could be a "gateway drug" that will encourage behaviors contrary to the town's conservative, rural roots. But proponents like Anderson, whose establishment is the only one in town to offer live music on a regular basis, are quick to note that the measure allows the town's restaurateurs to apply for a Class H liquor license.

Such a license allows only the serving of wine and beer, and only to customers who are seated. It leaves in effect a ban on the opening of bars or the sale of hard liquor.

"We're not going to be having drunks wandering the streets here," Anderson says. "People work hard all week, and they just want to be able to sit down and enjoy a beer or a glass of wine without having to leave town to do it. That's what we're going to provide."

On Friday, as news of the historic change was still settling in, it wasn't hard to sense the joy of those who saw it as a blessing — and the distress of those who viewed it as the loss of one of the community's most distinctive features.

The Music Cafe sits on a hillside just above Main Street, where the historic Druid movie theater — now a Rite Aid — stands near a landmark restaurant, Tom and Ray's, and an old-fashioned barbershop complete with striped pole.

Inside, where golden-oldie album covers line the walls and gourmet sandwiches have names like "In-a-Gadda-da-Veggie" and "Stairway to Freebird," the sense of elation was almost universal.

Anderson says customers who come to hear live bands every Friday and Saturday night have been telling him for years that they'd enjoy the place even more if they could have a beer or a glass of pinot as they listened. He didn't even have the option of offering BYOB.

He and Christine Anderson, his wife and co-owner, say they'll have their permits in place by January and will soon be altering their business model. Customers now place their orders at a glass display case up front, but they'll soon be served by waiters and waitresses.

The owners say they'll be removing the display case in favor of an oak bar that will serve as the waiters' work station, adding booths and installing a big-screen TV behind the restaurant's stage so they can begin showing NFL games.

At present, the Music Cafe closes at 2 p.m. Sundays.

"The added revenue is going to open up so many possibilities," says Anderson, adding that they'll start having crab feasts and other events featuring wine and beer starting in a few months.

Sue Richards, a retiree who lives in Damascus and has been a regular since the place opened, says the ban on alcohol has kept good restaurants from opening in town. She was thrilled for Anderson, who she says contributed a lot to the community simply by providing local musicians — and some national names as well — a place to share their talents.

"I'm ecstatic for him," she says. "This place is already great, but it's really going to be rocking soon."

In other parts of town, the disappointment was palpable. At Tom and Ray's, where a sign in the front window reads "Our Kind of Town — Damascus, Md.," the manager on duty wasn't prepared to comment. He declined to give his name.

Miller, a Damascus resident who runs the Red Rooster with her husband, Kevin, says her place employs underage kids behind the counter, and she has no intention of allowing her old-fashioned eatery to set a bad example for them.

Restaurants that have added alcohol to their menus in nearby towns like Germantown and Mount Airy have gone on to experience problems with violence, she adds.

"I don't want anything to do with that," she says during a break. "Things are tough enough as they are."

Across the street, lifelong resident Gary Richard was hanging drywall at one of the two Damascus gas stations he owns.

Richard, 60, has long been one of the most vocal opponents of lifting the ban.

He says the town's many sub-and-pizza shops would soon be serving beer, and that would expose too many underage residents to the temptation to drink at a time when they should be focusing on their studies.

"Now that people can get Class H permits, they'll eventually be arguing to get every other kind," he says, adding that this would lead to social decay more quickly than some realize.

At the Music Cafe, few seemed worried by such dire prognostications. Anderson, who has been vocally backing the change for years, says only two of the hundreds of visitors to his restaurant's Facebook page had ever written that they'd stop coming in if he served wine or beer.

On Thursday, he said, they stopped by to tell him they'd changed their mind. They would remain loyal customers.

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," he says. "That seems to be the feeling around here now. And that's all right with me."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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