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Bill would regulate Baltimore bar crawls

Bar crawlers lined Canton Square to register for the Canton Irish Stroll in 2015.
Bar crawlers lined Canton Square to register for the Canton Irish Stroll in 2015. (Colby Ware / BALTIMORE SUN)

Requiring pub crawl promoters to register their events in Baltimore won't stop some patrons from binge drinking, misbehaving in public and drunken driving. But supporters of legislation in the General Assembly to create a permit process for large-scale bar crawls say it is a first step toward getting a handle on the problems that often come with the events.

With the Irish Strolls of March just around the corner, two Baltimore Democrats want to regulate pub crawls that draw thousands to neighborhood streets. The legislation sponsored by state Sen. Bill Ferguson and Del. Peter Hammen would require a pub crawl organizer to apply for a permit at least 42 days before the event and pay $300 in application and permit fees. Each participating bar would have to pay $100.

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State and local legislators say the bill is not aimed at shutting down bar crawls; rather, it is a starting point to create accountability for what can accompany them and ensure that the events are provided with things like added police and portable toilets.

Residents in Canton, Federal Hill, Fells Point and other neighborhoods say bar crawls lead to urination and vomiting on private property, public sex acts and drunken driving. That's why a group of residents protested the renewal of liquor licenses for the 17 bars that participated in last year's Federal Hill Irish Stroll, which they said got out of control.

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"The majority of people in Federal Hill are not against bar crawls. What they're against are the large crowds that descend on the neighborhood and everything that goes along with it when they become unruly," said Beth Whitmer, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. "It's something that we don't seem to have a good handle on at this point, a way to enforce proper behavior."

To this point, pub crawls have gone largely unregulated. Organizers often are not required to obtain permits from the city.

"For the past three, four years there have been some real challenging issues with the larger ones," Ferguson said, noting that his 46th District, which includes the Canton, Federal Hill and Fells Point, has seen a majority of the problems.

The proposed permits, which would be administered by Baltimore's liquor board, would begin to provide oversight and give neighborhood leaders a chance to work with promoters ahead of pub crawls, supporters say. Ferguson said the fees would go toward the added city services needed, such as a heightened police presence, liquor license inspectors and sanitation.

Sean Patrick Flanagan, president of the Canton Community Association, said a critical part of the legislation is the notification that it would provide residents, who sometimes receive little to no warning of the events. Some pub crawl organizers let communities know about their events in advance; others do not.

Jon Gabel, CEO of New York-based Joonbug Promotions Inc., and Chrissy Benner, Joonbug's manager for Baltimore, had not responded to requests for comment as of Thursday. Officials at PubCrawls.com, another New York-based promoter that conducts crawls in Baltimore, could not be reached.

In Canton, many of the bars serve as the middlemen between residents and event promoters, Flanagan said.

"We find out about it online. It's posted, and all of a sudden we see that there's a pub crawl 10 days from now in Fells Point," said City Councilman James B. Kraft, whose district includes Fells Point and Canton. "Nobody knew how it happened, but everybody's going to honor the bracelets."

Kraft said 2014 marked a turning point for one of the city's largest bar crawls, the Canton Irish Stroll, because organizers — Lindy Promotions, which was recently bought by Joonbug — wanted to set up their registration table in O'Donnell Square. They had to go through the city's Department of Recreation and Parks for permission, so that gave the community a chance to work with them. Kraft said they have worked together since then.

"They have indicated they're willing to work with us, not just in terms of this cooperative working ... but also in terms of helping us craft the legislation, because they helped draft legislation in other jurisdictions," Kraft said.

The legislation would also require pub crawl organizers to obtain a special events permit from the city's Department of Transportation.

"It's not just applying for a special event permit and automatically getting the permit," Kraft said. "There are a lot of dominoes that fall when you request this permit."

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Brian McComas, owner of Ryleigh's Oyster and president of the Federal Hill Hospitality Association, said he supports requiring promoters to register their events in advance and take responsibility, but he does not support placing added mandates on participating businesses, such as requiring them to register and pay fees.

"While we support registration and things that help to calm the impact of events on our neighborhoods, we don't see this as the proper legislative approach," McComas said.

The legislation has its first hearing Monday in the House Economic Matters Committee, followed by a hearing Friday in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Ferguson said he is still ironing out some of the details. Most importantly, he said, he needs to better define a pub crawl to target large events. As worded now, the legislation would apply to any bar crawl that involves three or more bars where discounts are given during an event, which could include small, private crawls.

"We are doing our best to not include those," Ferguson said. "That is not the target of the legislation."

Defining "pub crawl" is a point that worries McComas, who said the legislation, as written, would create an enforcement nightmare because the definition is so vague.

"It really opens up some different problems regarding what is a pub crawl and what is a promotion," he said.

Ferguson said he plans amendments to clarify the type of event he is targeting.

Ultimately, he hopes the legislation can balance the interests of neighborhoods and promoters.

"We had to start somewhere," Ferguson said. "We are very much trying to do this the right way."

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