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Liquor Issues

by Fern Shen10:02 amDec 18, 20150

In Harlem Park, new Liquor Board exhumes old zombie (license)

Reversing a decision of the Ward board, they transfer a long-unused, seemingly un-killable liquor license to 1213 Edmondson Avenue

Above: The building where Anthony Ogbuokiri says he wants to open a jazz club. (2013 photo.)

A respectable jazz lounge? Or a neighborhood nuisance?

Suspecting that a liquor license transfer would lead to the latter at 1213 Edmondson Avenue – an odd stand-alone building in struggling Harlem Park – community leaders have asked two different Baltimore Liquor Boards to deny the request.

“This would definitely be a negative,” Arlene Fisher, president of the Lafayette Square Community Association, said on October 16, 2014, addressing Liquor Board Chairman Thomas Ward and the other two commissioners.

Opposition was just one issue clouding the prospects of the license. The other:

It’s an epic “zombie,” to use the term coined by the Community Law Center for liquor licenses which, by law, are dead but are somehow permitted to live on.

This particular license dates back to the legendary Martick’s restaurant at 214 West Mulberry Street (about two miles from Harlem Park) that closed in 2008.

According to state law, liquor licenses must be used within 180 days or they expire.

The Martick’s license had died and been revived three times by the Liquor Board by the time CLC watchdog lawyer Rebecca Lundberg Witt wrote about it in 2013 in her” Booze News” blog.

(She even had a fact-filled but creatively titled special section on it: “The Three Deaths and Three Resurrections of the Liquor License at 214 W. Mulberry Street”).

A year later, when Ward and the other commissioners finished listening to Fisher, they voted unanimously to extinguish the license.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

Last week, the board under its current chairman, Benjamin A. Neil, revived the license yet again.

So now, by Witt’s count, the Martick’s license is on to its fourth resurrection. Which is why The Brew is exhuming this tangled tale again.

“He’s Just Asking for Time”

The transfer was back before the board last week as a result of what Melvin J. Kodenski, the lawyer for licensee Anthony Ogbuokiri, called “a joint remand.”

Witt, who reviewed the case file, said the term “remand” was misleading. Although Kodenski filed an appeal in Circuit Court, she could find no argument stating the basis for his appeal and no evidence that a judge ever heard the case or made a determination.

Kodenski, today, confirmed that Witt is correct, he did not go before a judge or file a memorandum. “It was a remand by agreement,” he said, explaining that the agreement was with Alice Pinderhughes, the Liquor Board’s attorney.

Kodenski explained to the commissioners his argument for bringing the extinguished license back to the board: Ogbuokiri hadn’t been at the meeting where it was extinguished.

“He wasn’t here, he wasn’t notified,” Kodenski said.

Kodenski told the commissioners that along with purchasing the license, Ogbuokiri had put $35,000 into improving the building, where he intends to open a jazz club. He said his client had been delayed by a fire at the property.

(According to Witt, the fire had occurred before Ogbuokiri bought the building.)

No community members were present last week. Kodenski acknowledged the history of community objections, but dismissed it.

“The second community was up in tight with Doc Cheatham,” he said, referring to former city NAACP president Marvin “Doc” Cheatham, who is now president of the Matthew Henson Community Association.

Kodenski noted that he and his client “originally met with City Councilman [William “Pete”] Welch and we did the original hearing and it was approved.”

Liquor Board Commissioner Elizabeth Hafey then asked Kodenski, “Have there been any discussions with the community recently?”

“Well, he’s already been approved, so it’s not – When you say ‘the community’ – that really worries me,” Kodenski answered.

Commissioner Douglas Trotter spoke up at this point: “He’s [Ogbuokiri] been approved by–”

“He’s been approved by the board and everybody else,” Kodenski broke in, presumably meaning the pre-Ward liquor board chaired by Stephan Fogleman. “He’s just asking for time to complete his approval.”

180-day Clock

Executive Secretary Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth raised the issue of the expired license (“He exceeded his original 180 days.” she said. “I just want that on the record”), but acknowledged that the agency had erred as well.

“There was an issue with the notice,” she said. “We did not send the notice right.”

In the end, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the transfer, telling Ogbuokiri he has 180 days.

Kodenski was asked how much of the renovation on the planned jazz club is complete.

“The work is 98% done,” he said.

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