SNOW HILL — The Worcester County Board of License Commissioners (BLC) cited a “lack of public need” last Friday when denying two Ocean City applications — one for a new liquor license and another for the expansion of an existing liquor license.
Both license applications are located within a block of each other. The first, an attempt for a new license on 44th Street that would have been called “The Retro Music Hall,” wanted to fill a niche that applicant Steve Long claimed has been long ignored — the middle-aged demographic.
“I’m trying to cater to an older crowd here … my business plan is to provide entertainment and drinks in an atmosphere for an older crowd,” said Long.
At 48 years old, Long said that for years he’s felt marginalized with Ocean City nightlife, which he believes mostly caters to a 20-something crowd.
“There’s no other place that I’ve found that I feel comfortable in,” he told the BLC.
His business partner for the Music Hall, Mike Marshal, agreed.
“I think it’s something we do not have in Ocean City,” he said. “There’s no place right now where an older group can go and just relax.”
While Long had originally planned on calling his proposed establishment “The Frat House,” he chose to amend his application to “The Retro Music Hall” to better reflect the theme he wanted with the bar.
“It’s all about the music,” he said.
It was the way the bar would handle music that Long believed would help make it into the unique entity he was proposing. Customers would be encouraged to bring their own records, CDs or iPods so that all music would be patron-driven with the exception of occasional live bands. However, no music written post-1990 would ever be allowed.
“They’ll never be any hip-hop or any rap,” Long said.
However, the retro music angle was not enough, in the board’s eyes, to justify opening another bar in an already well covered area, with The Tap House nearby and Ocean City powerhouse Seacrets, the largest entertainment complex in the resort, on 49th Street. After a brief deliberation, the board denied the application with little comment, simply citing the lack of public need.
The neighbors that The Retro Music Hall nearly had, The Tap House and Seacrets, were involved in the BLC’s second and final public need based denial. Attorney Pete Cosby, on behalf of The Tap House bar and restaurant, attempted to convince the board that the establishment would be filling a public need if its license was expanded to include the off-site sale of beer, wine, and liquor.
BLC Chair William Esham quickly pointed out that Seacrets has recently started its own off-sale package good operation.
“So four blocks due north there is a license,” he told Cosby.
Esham added that while Seacrets owner Leighton Moore has only moved forward with off-site sales this summer, his unrestricted liquor license has given him the ability to do it since Seacrets was opened more than two decades ago.
“The fact is, he’s had the right to do it … for 24 years,” said Esham.
Cosby didn’t argue that Seacrets’ off-site sales wouldn’t be popular; in fact, he said the opposite. In his opinion, between the popularity of the actual complex and the new off-site sale boutique, Cosby asserted that traffic at the location would steer many away.
“It’s not about competition here; it’s about public need and service to the public,” he said.
Someone looking to purchase liquor “might think twice” before braving Seacrets’ busy parking lot, according to Cosby.
“We all know he has parking issues there,” he said.
Parking aside, not only did Moore protest The Tap House expanding into off-site sales, county officials opposed it as well.
“There’s only a certain amount of business done in Ocean City,” said Department of Liquor Control (DLC) Director Bobby Cowger.
Cowger told the board that liquor dispensary sales are down 6 percent this year and adding another off-site sale, of which Ocean City already has seven, would just hurt everyone’s business overall.
“You can only cut [business] so many ways,” said Cowger.
When pressed by Cosby about Seacrets’ parking being an issue, Cowger asserted that, in his opinion, Seacrets was not more clogged than other popular spots in Ocean City.
“The entire Ocean City is congested,” said Cowger.
Moore added that Seacrets has 91 more parking spaces than required.
County Attorney Sonny Bloxom warned the BLC that if it did allow The Tap House to launch off-site sales so close to an existing one they would be setting a dangerous precedent.
Cosby, however, remained steadfast in his argument that The Tap House scenario was unique due to the traffic that Seacrets can generate.
“You’re closing your eyes if you’re not acknowledging that,” he told the BLC.
The board disagreed and denied the application for off-site sales on the grounds that, not only was there a lack of public need, but that the installation of the site would have a negative impact on the other seven established liquor stores.