Business owners from Fells Point and Little Italy joined their colleagues and workers from The Block at a rally outside City Hall Tuesday, decrying a state proposal they say would devastate more than a dozen clubs on the short stretch of East Baltimore Street by closing them before their most profitable hours.
Backed by several Baltimore politicians and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison, the legislation would close businesses on The Block — the downtown home to more than half the city’s strip clubs — at 10 p.m., in an attempt to curb crime they say has worsened in the city’s adult entertainment district.
Claudia Towles, who owned aMuse Toys before it closed last year, said that city business owners have to band together to advocate for themselves, especially when it comes to public safety — that’s what Fells Point proprietors did when they threatened to withhold taxes if city leaders didn’t address crime and other issues in the waterfront neighborhood, she said. The City Council candidate stopped short of recommending club owners on The Block adopt the tactic.
John Sachs, president of the East Baltimore Street Association, estimates businesses on The Block that would be impacted by the legislation pay the city more than a million dollars annually in taxes. If the proposal is approved, he expects those businesses would be shuttered in 90 days.
“If this curfew is put into place, it’s gonna take food out of my children’s mouth, it’s gonna take the clothes off their back,” said Sara Wantland, co-owner of Club Pussycat on East Baltimore Street.
“We will lose everything,” she said.
Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson, who is sponsoring the legislation, has said he thinks the earlier “last call” time would reduce crime while freeing police to patrol other areas of the city.
The bill would apply to all businesses that hold both liquor and adult entertainment licenses in a defined geographic area that surrounds The Block. Those businesses are currently allowed to operate until 2 a.m.
The Democrat, whose district includes The Block, has said he’s not pushing similar closing times on bars in other city nightlife hot spots, like Fells Point, because he sees businesses in those areas as more responsive to the requests of police and city officials.
Club owners and workers on The Block say authorities are exaggerating how much violence occurs in the downtown adult entertainment district compared to other areas of the city.
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Thiru Vignarajah, a former deputy state attorney general who previously ran for mayor and state’s attorney, is skeptical of crime statistics presented by Harrison last week as justification for the bill. Harrison said, for example, that the Block saw 831 calls for service last year; but that represents less than a percentage point of the city’s overall 911 calls, Vignarajah said.
“The statistics don’t suggest that The Block is more dangerous than other streets,” Vignarajah, who has taken on the role as The Block’s spokesman, told reporters.
Vignarajah said none of the 30 murders that had happened in the city this year as of Tuesday afternoon have occurred in the Central District police precinct surrounding The Block, he said. And none of the city’s publicly-reported 1,543 crimes have occurred within the confines of The Block, either, he said.
Harrison in a statement last week said The Block had 831 calls for service in 2021, but the police department has not answered questions from The Baltimore Sun about how many of the reported calls came after 10 p.m.
A Sun analysis of publicly available data for the 400 block of E. Baltimore St. found that of the 89 crimes recorded in 2021, 69% occurred between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. The police patrol area that includes The Block recorded about twice as many violent crimes in 2021 as the patrol area that includes Fells Point — 394 to 201, according to The Sun’s analysis.
Club owners said they want to meet with local and state lawmakers who are pushing the proposal before the bill moves forward. To date, they said, they have not been contacted by any of the legislators who have signed on to the bill.
Baltimore Sun reporters Pamela Wood and Bryn Stole contributed to this article.