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Drinkers disturbing downtown

November 15, 1998|By JULIE E. GREENE

For some, happy hour is anything but a good time in downtown Hagerstown.

Several downtown merchants and residents say they are fed up with public drinking, fighting and littering outside bars.

"We've had drunks inside the building," said Lauran Clowser, director of the City Ballet School in the Elizabeth Hager Center on Public Square.

"I'm concerned about the children," Clowser told city officials, who met last Tuesday with liquor board officials to discuss what could be done to prevent such problems.

There are approximately 77 bars, restaurants and liquor stores in Hagerstown, of which about half are within a half-mile of Public Square, according to the City of Hagerstown. There are 11 taverns in the downtown area alone. Most of the complaints have focused on a handful of those 11.

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The Board of License Commissioners, commonly known as the liquor board, does not have policing powers, and its penalties are often watered down in court appeals, said Chairman Donald Mellott.

When a Washington County Circuit Court judge gives a liquor license holder probation before judgment, it nullifies any fines or suspensions the liquor board gave the defendant, Mellott said.

An attempt to change state law so the liquor board's fines and suspensions would stick in such cases died in a state legislative committee last spring, Mellott said.

Liquor board officials will try again when the Maryland General Assembly convenes in January, this time with the backing of the mayor and City Council, said Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II.

City officials also have asked the police department to continue to be on the alert for people loitering with open containers of alcohol, Bruchey said.

That's all they can do until they develop a better game plan, he said.

Councilman J. Wallace McClure suggested containers of alcohol have a stamp identifying which liquor license holder it came from so police could track down the source of the problem.

Councilman William M. Breichner and some liquor license holders disagreed, saying it was impractical and tavern owners couldn't be held responsible for someone loitering.

Despite many of the complaints occurring near bars, some people said the bars aren't the problem.

The people hanging around on the sidewalk creating problems are young people in their teens and 20s, said Roberta Leggett, 52, of 127 E. Franklin St.

Leggett said she lost up to four nights of sleep once because teens were hanging out nearby drinking beer and using drugs.

"I called the police about 20 times," but five minutes after the cops left, the youths were back, she said.

Leggett and her neighbor, Sue Wiles, 40, had a problem with one former neighbor in particular. Twenty to 30 youths would hang out on the porch drinking, selling crack cocaine, fighting and yelling at passing drivers, Wiles said.

On Wednesday afternoon a group of men were standing outside near Duke's Tavern at 33 E. Franklin St., but they said they were waiting, not loitering.

"We are part of the problem. We are poor people. We are homeless people," said Michael Eugene Conway, who now lives at the YMCA.

Conway, 49, said he and his friends stand on the sidewalk hustling for errand jobs.

"When the bars open up it's like a refuge to go to," he said. If city officials want to get them off the sidewalks, they need to give them a place to go, he said.

Police Capt. Robert Hart said some of the loiterers are people the Hagerstown Housing Authority evicted from Noland Village, Westview and Frederick Manor because of drug-related arrests and who have moved to Locust, Mulberry, Franklin and East Washington streets.

Residents, bar owners and merchants continue to want more of a police presence downtown.

Hart said at any given time there could be as many as 10 officers patrolling downtown.

But it is difficult, even for the police, to determine whether disturbances near a bar originated in the bar, Hart said.

Pat Wolford, board president for The Maryland Theatre, said there was a fight across the street in front of the Double TT Lounge around 1:45 a.m. on Oct. 31 that stopped traffic as "Rocky Horror Picture Show" patrons were leaving the theater.

The Double TT was perceived to be such a problem that about 10 neighboring residents and merchants showed up at a liquor license renewal hearing April 29 to complain, according to Wolford and liquor board records.

Hart told the board that police received about 10 calls a month near the Double TT, but couldn't say whether the disturbances began in the bar or were just near the bar.

It's difficult for the liquor board to penalize a bar when there isn't proof tying the disturbances to bar patrons, officials said.

Double TT owner Robert Vandergriff said he has his own problems with loiterers, especially teenagers trying to get in the bar.

Police will run them off, but they return later, said Vandergriff, who has an "Absolutely no loitering in front of the tavern!!!" sign in the window.

If neighbors see one of his customers causing a problem, Vandergriff said they should call him.

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