BERLIN — One week after a dust-up over potential legislation allowing the Casino at Ocean Downs to serve alcohol 24 hours a day and a subsequent proposal to move up the sunset provision for the county Department of Liquor Control’s (DLC) wholesale operation, it appears the parties involved are closer to a solution amenable to everyone.
Last week, feathers were ruffled when it was learned an amendment could be added to a bill in the General Assembly addressing other issues related to Worcester County’s liquor laws that would have allowed the Casino at Ocean Downs to serve alcohol 24 hours a day. Four of the five approved casinos in Maryland have the state authority to serve alcohol during all of their hours of operation including, for example, the Maryland Live Casino in Anne Arundel County, which is open 24 hours a day.
Last week, it became apparent the Casino at Ocean Downs was trying to gain the same authority. With the current session now past the halfway mark, an effort was undertaken to allow the Casino at Ocean Downs to offer alcoholic beverages during its hours of open operation, presumably 24 hours if the facility expands to those hours in the future. Already the Ocean Downs casino is open 24 hours a day on the weekends, but must cut off alcohol sales at 2 a.m. just as all other establishments in Worcester County now do.
The proposed change rankled the liquor license holders in Worcester, most of which are concentrated in Ocean City, because of the perception it would create an unlevel playing field for bars and restaurants that would still be held to the firm 2 a.m. closing time while the casino just miles away could continue to serve all night, or at the least a couple hours beyond the current 2 a.m. cutoff time.
As a result, the license holders pushed for a concession on their behalf in the form of an earlier disconnect date from the county’s DLC wholesale operation. As part of the legislation that dissolved the old LCB and created the county-run DLC, the licensees were required to continue to purchase wholesale liquor from the county until July 1, 2016, at which time they would be able to purchase their spirits on the open wholesale market. In a conciliatory move pitched last week, the sunset date would be moved to July 1, 2014, allowing licensees to test the private sector wholesale market two years earlier than initially expected.
Throughout the back-and-forth conversations last week, the county was the party that appeared to have the most to lose and the least to gain. However, it now appears a solution is on the table that could be agreeable to all parties involved. Senator Jim Mathias (D-38) reported the discussions are ongoing and an amendable solution could be near.
“It looks like things are moving forward, but it’s a work in progress,” he said. “Mr. Rickman agreed to compromise on some things and the county is looking at language in an amendment that might let the licensees opt out of the DLC earlier.”
After a few days of finger pointing and innuendo last week, it now appears the parties are working on a final amendment, according to Mathias.
“All of the parties are talking and everybody appears willing to make some concessions,” he said. “Everybody is at the table. It appears progress is being made to a sensible conclusion. I’m cautiously optimistic about the whole thing.”
Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38B), on whose House Bill the amendment would be attached, said the proposed language includes a little something for each party involved. For example, the casino would be allowed to keep selling alcohol until 4 a.m. when they choose to, although the casino would be the only licensee to be allowed to do that. However, for years, local bars and restaurants have been able to serve beyond 2 a.m. on certain occasions, such as New Year’s Eve, for example.
For the licensees, the concession could be an earlier sunset date on the DLC wholesale monopoly. Currently, the licensees purchase exclusively through the DLC although that arrangement is set to expire in 2016. If the amendment goes through as written, that sunset date could be moved up to July 1, 2014. “That’s going to expire in the near future anyway, but if this goes through, it would put them basically on a one-year countdown clock,” said McDermott. “That’s a concession for the licensees, who felt they were put at a competitive disadvantage if the casino was allowed to serve later.”
Worcester’s advantage in the whole tit-for-tat process would be a relaxing of the rules on from whom and where the county could purchase its wholesale liquor.
After much saber-rattling and teeth gnashing last week, it now appears there is a solution afoot, according to McDermott.
“For a lot of reasons, things got a little off course last week, but fortunately, it looks like we were able to get things back on track,” he said. “I hope everybody sees this as a good outcome because I think there is something in this for everybody.”