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Conway moves to stop liquor licenses in Belvedere

A powerful city senator has amended legislation in Annapolis to ban any new liquor licenses in a North Baltimore neighborhood — a move that is drawing criticism from opponents who say it should have been aired in public first.

State Sen. Joan Carter Conway added the language to a bill aimed at reforming the city's liquor board. The amendment, which has received votes of approval by both chambers of the General Assembly, would ban any new liquor licenses in the Belvedere area of her district near the Senator Theatre. The legislation has not received a final vote that would send it to the governor for signature.

Conway says she pushed the amendment on behalf of a community association that is concerned about drinking in the neighborhood. "This has been a discussion for a while about that particular area," she said. "It's a good amendment."

But some business owners said Monday they were caught unaware by the change and fear it could hurt the future of the local economy.

"It's basically saying no new restaurants could come into this area and get a liquor license, which is a huge, huge problem," said Stacey L. Pack, a manager with the firm that runs the Belvedere Square Market. "Any type of bill or amendment like this limits the possibilities," she said.

Conway's proposal states that after July 1, no business may be awarded a new liquor license in an area south of Northern Parkway, east of Bellona Avenue, north of Orkney Road, and west of Evesham Avenue. Liquor licenses also may not be transferred into the area, the amendment states. The House version would not take effect for a year.

Conway said she regularly attends meetings of the Belvedere Improvement Association and hears concerns about the number of establishments in the area serving beer, wine and liquor. The neighborhood is home to several businesses with liquor licenses, including the Senator, Grand Cru at the Belvedere Square Market, Zen West Cafe and Swallow at the Hollow.

Conway argued that bars and restaurants that serve alcohol can have a negative impact on people who live close by them. "The impact of these liquor licenses is not on the business community. The impact is on the residential community," she said.

Another district legislator, Del. Curt Anderson, said he's supporting Conway's proposal. "I'm always in favor of fewer liquor licenses," he said. "I don't think we have to go to the businesses to see if they approve of it. It seems to me there's already plenty of places to go for late-night entertainment."

But some business and community leaders question the lack of public discussion about the move.

"We are always concerned about laws that limit businesses' future growth, particularly when growth is limited without any consultation of businesses in the area," said Maria Johnson Darby, president of the Govanstowne Business Association, which represents merchants along the York Road corridor, including Belvedere. "The Govanstowne businesses try really hard to work with communities. We're really concerned there was no discussion. It's not an out-of-control bar scene."

Senator Theatre owner James "Buzz" Cusack said he doesn't understand targeting bars in Belvedere, which he said has a tamer night life than Federal Hill or Canton.

"Usually something like this comes about after a bar that's out of control. That's not the case here," Cusack said. "It would be nice to have more activity here. That's why I don't understand this bill."

City Councilman Bill Henry, who is running for state Senate against Conway, said he was "disappointed" that she introduced an amendment affecting many people in the area without informing the public or having wider-ranging discussions.

"If Belvedere Improvement Association did formally ask the state senator to do this, that's within their right," he said. "I'm disappointed that they wouldn't reach out to the other communities that are impacted by the decision to make it a more collective effort. The fact that they asked isn't the problem. The fact the senator would do it without talking to anyone else is what's troubling."

Conway said she didn't feel the need to talk with businesses about the amendment. She said she believed the community group had already done that. Belvedere Improvement Association president LaVerne Nicholson Sykes declined to comment.

Pack, of Belvedere Square Market, said the shopping complex is about 90 percent rented and she'd like to add more tenants. The amendment could prevent a potential restaurant from being profitable, she said.

Pack said she spoke with Sykes on Monday in hopes of resolving the issue, and they have agreed to further talks.

The broader liquor board bill is the result of a scathing audit that revealed widespread mismanagement and spotty enforcement by the panel. The audit found the liquor board meted out punishment inconsistently and had no written policies for how liquor inspectors should do their jobs. Two liquor board inspectors who were expected to conduct more than 800 liquor establishment inspections each year completed only 41. The board used a paper filing system so antiquated that one worker told auditors he stored records in the trunk of his car to ensure they would not get lost.

A work group of state legislators and staff members to Gov. Martin O'Malley and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake drafted the legislation aimed at reforming the board.

Under the legislation pushed by the work group, the agency would be required to participate in Baltimore's CitiStat program, which aggressively tracks city agencies' performance. The bill also would require all liquor board records to be posted online and grant the city government stricter scrutiny of the agency's budget.

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