Emotions smolder over smoking ban; Law: Restaurant and bar owners are concerned they will lose business when Montgomery County's smoking prohibition takes effect in 2002.


SILVER SPRING -- Valerie McDonnell can't imagine her customers nursing a pint and singing along with an Irish band in a smoke-free pub.

Emmanuel Bailey can't picture his after-work crowd unwinding with a Chivas and a smooth jazz combo without seeing ashtrays on the bar.

But both say they can envision a day three years from now when they will be out of business as a result of the Montgomery County Council's vote Tuesday to ban all smoking in restaurants and bars.

Opponents of the law say Montgomery County's prohibition on smoking will make it an island in a sea of communities with more lenient regulations.

McDonnell and Bailey invested their financial lives in Silver Spring, hoping to catch the first wave in the promised multimillion-dollar downtown renaissance.

"Everyone advised me not to open here because of the anti-business climate," said Bailey, who owns the nightspot bearing his name. "But I thought I should invest in my community, the one I have known since 1972.

"They were right and I was absolutely wrong. I made a terrible, terrible mistake to put my faith in Montgomery County. I gambled on the wrong county."

The smoke is still clearing from the 5-4 council vote, which was hailed by anti-smoking activists as a worker protection law and assailed by the business community as over-regulation. The law will require all bars and restaurants to be smoke-free by Jan. 1, 2002.

McDonnell says her initial panic attack after the council vote has been replaced by a grim assessment of her options.

In October, McDonnell and Rhonda Newsome opened Paddy Mac's, an Irish pub on Georgia Avenue that boasts darts, a pool table and live music.

"My first reaction was, 'Pack up, we're out of here.' But we have a two-year lease," McDonnell said. "We've gone through hell to get this place running. We live from day to day. We don't know whether we're going to make it or not."

Bruce Lee, president of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce, said McDonnell isn't the only one to call him to express worries.

"Many restaurants in Silver Spring are operating on a 3 to 5 percent profit margin. If they take a 10 or 20 percent hit because of this law, that's virtually impossible to come back from," he said.

Lee said he is worried about the future of the smaller restaurants near the county line like Paddy Mac's, especially on weekends.

"It might be easier deeper in the county. People still need to eat," he said. "But for recreation on Friday or Saturday night, people will drive the extra 20 minutes to the district or Prince George's. That's a no-brainer."

Council member Steven Silverman, who voted for the ban, said he can understand the trepidation, but hopes it doesn't turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy.

"The three-year lead time was not done cavalierly. It was done to provide for rational discussion of what needs to be done," he said.

Silverman said if the county needs to commit more than the $200,000 set aside to assist small restaurants, that also can be adjusted.

"This is not a lot different than states and the federal government deciding to provide financial assistance to tobacco farmers to get them to move away from that livelihood," he said.

Bailey said he was scouting for a second site in Gaithersburg until the vote. This week he called off his real estate agent.

"I've created 20 jobs with health benefits in Silver Spring. I wanted to create more," said Bailey, an official with Freddie Mac.

Bailey signed a five-year lease for his Wayne Avenue restaurant in December 1995, before the $231 million urban renewal plan was announced.

"It was hell moving into an area with no traffic flow, that area with no traffic flow, that was dark at night. I thought, 'This is a diamond in the rough,' and that's what I have banked on," he said. "I'm not asking for handouts. I'm asking for the ability to be competitive."

Pub Date: 3/06/99

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