Bars and strip clubs on The Block in Baltimore may dodge early last call under revised legislation

Bars and strip clubs on The Block in Baltimore would be able to dodge a threatened 10 p.m. early closing time by meeting a slate of security requirements under a revised version of a bill cracking down on the city’s adult entertainment district that passed the Maryland Senate on Tuesday.

The bars and clubs would no longer face the possibility of having to pay for two off-duty city police officers to patrol the short stretch of East Baltimore Street during the busiest 15 hours of each week. The possibility of an extra tax raised hackles among owners when the Baltimore politicians pushing the legislation pitched it as a possible compromise last month.


Although a couple of clubs on The Block have welcomed the deal, some club owners and managers on The Block remained irate over the legislation because it keeps a potential early 10 p.m. closing time as punishment for clubs that don’t abide by the new security requirements.

“We were double-crossed,” said John Sachs, who runs both the club Chez Joey and the East Baltimore Street Association, regarding talks with the legislation’s chief sponsor, Senate President and Baltimore Democrat Bill Ferguson. Sachs said he agreed with all the new security requirements but “we would never agree to something with 10 o’clock in it.”


But even if The Block isn’t on board with the bill, state senators certainly are. The legislation passed unanimously, 47-0.

Ferguson said he “absolutely and unequivocally” stood by the bill and his efforts to accommodate The Block’s business concerns about paying more for police patrols and said Sachs “is moving the goal posts” with his latest objections. Clubs would have three months to submit security plans before the new legislation goes into effect July 1, Ferguson noted, and any club that stuck to the agreed-upon measures could stay open until 2 a.m., the current last call.

“A plan is only as good as the fidelity to its implementation,” Ferguson said. “Perhaps these new objections stem from never having planned to take that security plan seriously, which would ensure the 10 p.m. closure never takes effect.”

The bill originally would’ve forced every bar and club on The Block — a short stretch of East Baltimore Street and Custom House Avenue packed with more than a dozen adult entertainment venues — to close no later than 10 p.m., something clubs said would almost certainly spell doom for businesses that rely heavily on a late-night clientele.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison asked for the crackdown on The Block, claiming that rowdy closing-time crowds outside the clubs had become a drain on police resources. Harrison and other police officials contended that crime in the area forced commanders to pull in cops from elsewhere in the city.

Owners and managers have sharply disputed Harrison’s contentions, questioning whether crime is any higher or crowds any rowdier on The Block than in other packed nightlife districts, including blocks in Federal Hill, Fells Point and Canton. Several also complained that they have little authority or ability to police what happens on public streets outside their businesses and that officers who do come through do little about petty crime.

Now, instead of imposing an across-the-board 10 p.m. last call, the amended legislation passed by the Senate would require bars and clubs on The Block to file formal security plans with the city liquor board and abide by a new set of rules.

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Among them: requirements for high-definition security cameras, door attendants equipped with metal-detecting wands and a security contact for police at each club. Baltimore cops would also get unfettered access to video footage from the cameras.


Several owners from The Block have said those steps are already routine at most establishments — but the legislation would tie renewal of valuable liquor and adult-entertainment licenses to compliance. Clubs that don’t abide by the new rules could still be hit by the 10 p.m. early closing time.

Two extra police officers would be hired to patrol from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. But instead of being paid from a new special fee on The Block’s bars and clubs, the cops would by paid for by the Baltimore Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit that already manages some taxes from downtown commercial properties, including those on The Block.

A majority of club owners had bristled at the prospect of paying additional new taxes. After the pandemic — and rising crime in Baltimore — took a major bite out of business for clubs on The Block, Sachs wrote in an email last month, “it is impossible for us to fork over more money.”

The crackdown was just the latest in a decadeslong periodic effort by Baltimore politicians, police and liquor inspectors to clean up, close down or move The Block, once a famed and bustling post-World War II destination for vaudeville theaters and burlesque shows.

The lights on The Block were literally dimmed, for instance, in the early 1990s under legislation that banned neon marquee lights and loud barkers from the strip. Those regulations came after an aborted effort by then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke to shut down the clubs and force them to relocate to industrial areas around the city.

A mandated 10 p.m. early closing time for liquor establishments in certain areas has also been frequently used by Baltimore officials in recent years in response to crime in the surrounding area. A separate piece of proposed local liquor legislation this year would actually lift an early closing time imposed on liquor stores along a 12-block stretch of North Avenue running west from Druid Hill Avenue. Local politicians backing the change said improvements in the area mean the restrictions are no longer needed.