DOWNTOWN PLAN FACES A SOBERING CHALLENGE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two ragged men sleep in the hot afternoon sun across from the Cross Street Market. One sprawls on the sidewalk, grizzled cheek to the pavement, dead to the world. The other dozes fitfully as he sits slumped on a low brick wall. Between them lie two empty pints of Thunderbird wine.

It's not a pretty sight, and such scenes don't fit into the "vision" outlined recently in a report to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke on a "Strategy for the Progressive Development of Downtown."

That report, which addresses a wide variety of issues facing downtown Baltimore over the next 20 years, received ample publicity for such suggestions as razing part of the Jones Falls Expressway and making Charles Street two-way. Less well-noticed were a number of other sections, one of which deals directly with the problem of street alcoholics.

"Limit the hours of liquor store operation, create minimum stor sizes, strengthen loitering prohibitions and prevent the sale of miniatures and chemical wine," the report advises in a section on "downtown livability."

The recommendations on alcoholic beverages arise from general disgust with a perceived rise in the level of panhandling, litter and public drunkenness, according to members of an advisory committee that helped draft the report.

Residents tell of feeling like prisoners in their homes, of being threatened by ragged men huddled on their doorsteps. Business owners complain that fear of vagrants keeps customers away from their stores.

Poke your head into the walkway behind the stores in the first block of East Cross Street and it immediately becomes apparent why city residents and business owners are upset about drunken vagrancy.

Amid the piles of trash, reeking of urine, are dozens of empty bottles, many still in their brown paper bags. Thunderbird is clearly the favorite wine here, but MD 20/20 (known as "Mad Dog") and Richard's Wild Irish Rose are also popular. Also well represented are 100-milliliter "shorties" of gin and "half-pints" (actually 200 milliliters) of rum.

The neighborhood's problem with drunken vagrancy is obvious but it is less clear how the report's suggestions would bring relief. Cross Street lies several blocks outside downtown, the only area within the scope of the report. Asked about a possible migration of vagrants to other neighborhoods to escape a downtown ban, several committee members said they would support citywide restrictions.

One person who is convinced that a downtown ban on Thunderbird and similar wines wouldn't deter street alcoholics is Willie Gaines, 35, a homeless man who inhabits downtown and describes himself as "a thoroughbred wino."

"You take all that wine from downtown, those m------------ just going to go somewhere else," he said, naming Greenmount Avenue, Old Town Mall and Pimlico as places vagrants would go to buy cheap wine.

How far to extend any ban is only one of a number of tricky questions raised by the report's recommendations: How do you determine which sizes of bottles to ban? Which wines would be prohibited? How far can you go in restricting sales to vagrant alcoholics without infringing on the rights of responsible drinkers? And would a ban work?

In cities and towns where similar curbs have been tried, report have been mixed.

Portland, Ore., instituted a ban on sales of cheap, fortified wine in Burnside/Old Town, site of the city's Skid Row, in the mid-1980s.

Dan Steffey, Portland's director of community development, said the ban eased problems for Old Town businesses but "didn't cause people to stop drinking; it just caused it to spread out."

However, Rob DeGraff, field services director for a downtown Portland business organization, said the ban was having a positive effect on downtown development. Vagrant alcoholics still get drunk on beer and less potent wine, he said, but they don't get drunk as quickly and are less likely to sleep on the sidewalks.

"They don't seem to have the same impact on the public and the public's right of way," he said. The program was successful enough that the city has designated a second "alcohol-impact" zone where the ban will be introduced, he said.

In Montgomery County, Gaithersburg city officials launched a campaign last year to persuade retailers to voluntarily refrain from selling the four most popular cheap, fortified wines -- Thunderbird, MD 20/20, Richard's and Night Train.

Mayor Ed Bohrer said 10 of the 11 private retailers in the city had agreed not to sell the products, as did Montgomery's county-owned liquor outlets.

Even though the ban was partly undermined when some retailers began to sell Cisco, a similar product, the program "has really accomplished what we set out to do," the mayor said. He said it had helped alleviate the problem of public drunkenness in the town center with no noticeable spread to other neighborhoods.

In the liquor industry, the reaction to the proposal was strongly negative, but some Baltimore retailers indicated they could support certain modest restrictions.

Alcoholic-beverage lobbying groups oppose cutbacks in the hours that liquor stores can do business, but some retailers indicated they would welcome relief from the competitive pressure to work long days.

Maryland law lets liquor retailers with six-day licenses stay open from 6 a.m. to midnight and holders of seven-day licenses sell from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. In contrast, in the District of Columbia liquor stores are restricted to selling from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to midnight Saturday. No spirits or fortified wines can be sold on Sunday, although grocery stores with "B" liquor licenses are permitted to sell beer and table wine.

The downtown report's recommended bans on "chemical wines" and miniature bottles are more controversial, partly because of the difficulty of drafting a rule that doesn't inconvenience consumers who are not alcoholics.

For instance, the report is imprecise in its reference t "miniatures," a term that in the liquor trade refers to 50-milliliter bottles such as those sold to passengers by airlines. Committee members explained later that what they really want are restrictions on most bottle sizes below the standard 750-milliliter "fifth." In fact, a walk through several Baltimore alleys frequented by vagrants turned up few miniatures but dozens of "shorties" and half-pints.

In addition, the term "chemical wine" is a misnomer. The beverages the committee wants to restrict --such as Gallo's Thunderbird and Night Train, Mogen David's MD 20/20, and Canandaigua Wine Co.'s Richard's Wild Irish Rose and Cisco -- may not appeal to connoisseurs, but they are made from fruit and are no more "chemical" than other wines.

Like port, sherry and Madeira, they fall into the category of fortified wine, which means spirits have been added to raise their alcoholic content to 17 percent to 20 percent, compared with 10 percent to 14 percent for most table wines. For that reason, drafting a broad, legally enforceable ban that separates "bad" Thunderbird from "good" Harvey's Bristol Cream would pose a challenge for its authors.

Under the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed Prohibition, states have broad powers to regulate alcoholic beverages, but a formal ban naming specific products and not others could be vulnerable to challenge, said Gerald Langbaum, assistant Maryland attorney general and counsel to the Baltimore liquor board.

Some liquor boards around the country have sidestepped that problem by requiring some licensees to accept "informal" bans on certain brands. For instance, Portland's ban is applied license by license. In Baltimore, the liquor board has imposed such restrictions on some licensees but none downtown, said Aaron Stansbury, the board's administrator.

For some retailers, any ban is repugnant.

"I'd be dead set against it," said Mike Katz, owner of Charles Street Liquors, a small store near the Cross Street Market that offers its diverse clientele everything from $1.65 pints of "Mad Dog" 20/20 to $30 California Cabernet sauvignon. "You're discriminating against people. Where does it stop?"

He said Thunderbird-style wines appeal not only to vagrants and alcoholics, but also have a strong following among employed, working-class people who are not alcoholics.

That is a view shared by Gallo, maker of Thunderbird and Night Train. Dan Solomon, a Gallo spokesman, said there are "thousands of consumers who enjoy these wines in moderation." He noted that Gallo directed its distributors in 1989 to stop selling to accounts that sold those wines to "public inebriates."

"If there are any problems with specific retailers, I'd like to know who they are," he said.

However, Mr. Gaines, the homeless man, has a different perspective on how Thunderbird and similar wines are used.

"You drink Thunderbird, there ain't no sipping," he said. "Ain't no casual person gonna drink no Thunderbird."

Some retailers already have second thoughts about selling cheap, fortified wines to customers such as Mr. Gaines.

Kay Brazile, who owns Mid Town Liquors at Maryland Avenue and Biddle Street, already limits her sales and displays of such wines and said she might support a ban on them. "I'd probably sleep better at night," she said, adding that she had seen too many people "totally get wiped out by that Thunderbird."

She draws the line at curbs on bottle size, however, adding that some of her customers like to buy small sizes, especially miniatures, because it helps them monitor their intake of alcohol. Many of her older customers on fixed incomes like to purchase small bottles for their toddies, she added.

Even professional substance-abuse counselors disagree over whether bans are an effective approach to the problem of street alcoholics.

"Prohibition didn't work, and I don't think it would work again," said Chris Hathaway, director of the Baltimore Recovery Center, adding that improved alcohol education should be the priority. "I'm glad there's some interest in this, but I question the way it's being done."

But Lamont Lawson, an advocate for the homeless in Gaithersburg and a former street alcoholic himself, was the prime mover behind a voluntary ban on cheap, fortified wine adopted in that Montgomery County city. He said that in his experience such products create more problems than other alcoholic drinks.

"It really causes some bizarre behavior," he said. "It certainly affected my behavior." He said that, because of the cost, alcoholics who couldn't get their favorite cheap wine were more likely to go a notch down to beer and table wine than up to hard liquor.

The Baltimore proposal arose out of concerns for downtow living conditions, but the Gaithersburg program was adopted as a health measure at the suggestion of Mr. Lawson, Mayor Bohrer said. He added that the ban was part of a "global approach" that also emphasized an active detoxification and rehabilitation program.

"I don't think you can just have the ban and think you're doing the job," Mr. Bohrer said.

Cities target cheap, fortified wines

5) What a report proposes for Baltimore:

To "limit the hours of liquor store operation, create minimum store sizes, strengthen loitering prohibitions and prevent the sale of miniatures and chemical wine."

What Portland, Ore., did:

Banned sales of cheap, fortified wines in Burnside/Old Town, site of the city's Skid Row district.

What Gaithersburg, Md., did:

Launched a campaign last year to persuade retailers to voluntarily refrain from selling the "Big Four" cheap fortified wines -- Thunderbird, MD 20/20, Richard's Wild Irish Rose and Night Train.

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