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Closing Time: Baltimore's Battle with Liquor Licenses

Dominique Maria Bonessi

Second of two parts

Shekhar Karki has owned Waverly Tavern, a bar and liquor store in north Baltimore, for four years.

“It’s a good business,” he says. “That is what I thought before starting.”

Since he bought the place, he’s invested about $200,000 to renovate the tavern and boost security. In July, Karki bought out his partners and became the sole owner. But for the past year and a half, he says, he’s had problems.

“Sometimes we have occasionally a crowding issue, which we have been working consistently to solve those issues,” says Karki.

But it’s more than crowding. There have been incidents of customers loitering outside with open bottles of liquor, in violation of state law. Police officers told a liquor board hearing in April of repeated 911 calls to the place and making arrests. So far this year, police have been called to the tavern’s address on Old York Road 133 times, mostly for disorderly persons, according to police records.

“Sometimes there have been issues when we call the police they do not show up for like 35 or 40 minutes,” says Karki.

The Waverly Improvement Association tried for years to get the liquor board to revoke Karki’s license without success. The board renewed the liquor store license after the April hearing despite complaints from neighborhood residents and police testimony because the complaints had never gotten from the police department to the liquor board. The board had no record in its files of the problems.

The board has scheduled another hearing on Karki’s license Thursday because of reports of six violations that brought police to the tavern since the April hearing, costing taxpayers $600,000, according to police.

But the Waverly community’s problems with what used to be a friendly neighborhood bar are reflected throughout the city, where community groups complain regularly there are too many bars and liquor stores in Baltimore, fueling crime and other problems.

Baltimore City Liquor Board standards allow one liquor license per 1000 residents. That would be about 600 licenses for a populatoin just over 600,000. Baltimore has 1,221 total liquor licenses, more than twice the standard.

City officials say they hope to change that with new zoning laws to strictly limit the number of taverns and liquor stores in residential areas. Mayor Catherine Pugh says there’s more to it than just zoning.

“We think there are too many liquor stores here, but the issue is not just about liquor stores," says Pugh. "The issue is about crime and controlling crime in our communities.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, nationwide 47 percent of homicides involve alcohol use.

David Jernigan, a long-time resident of Baltimore and a professor of health law and policy management at Boston University, says crimes like aggravated assault, homicide, rape, and robbery can often be attributed to alcohol consumption.

“Here in Baltimore city we have a huge homicide problem, and alcohol is almost never in the conversation about what is driving our homicide epidemic,” says Jernigan.

In 2016, Jernigan’s research commissioned by Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore found that crimes attributed to alcohol use cost the city $15 million in work productivity and criminal justice costs.

Jernigan says the city could do more than use zoning laws to ease the problem.

“There is a way to do this that is both community and business friendly,” says Jernigan.

Credit Dominique Maria Bonessi
Waverly Tavern's bar is sparsely stocked with a few handles of liquor and plastic cups. The bar is a separate entrance from the liquor store.

Meanwhile, Karki and other bar owners are scratching their heads about what the new zoning code could mean for the future of their businesses.

“Our investment and the time I have put on this place,” says Karki. “How am I going to make my livelihood after that?”

Karki says he’s trying to make his business safer for the customers and his neighbors. He says he has cleaned up trash outside and encouraged customers to drink at home, not in front of his store, to reduce loitering.

“What I believe is that if the business thrives then it can bring employment, and it can bring opportunity,” says Karki. “And also, I have been a tax payer to the city. So I hope they will understand that.”

Karki says he’s made all these changes in good faith and now he’d like some help from the city to make more changes.

“We have been working from our side to keep the community safe, but we at the same time should be getting some help,” says Karki.

And he says he’d like to see police patrolling the area more often, increased communication with the local community association which he has become a member of, and another option for taverns located in residential areas that are at risk of being shut down by the new regulations.

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