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Liquor commissioner visits Berkeley County

April 24, 2001

Liquor commissioner visits Berkeley County



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

ABC Commissioner Thomas KeelyPhoto: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

West Virginia State Alcohol Beverage Control Commissioner Thomas Keeley promised local residents Tuesday he will hold a public hearing on the application for a liquor license for a proposed $1 million sports bar and exotic dance business on W.Va. 9 near Mountaineer Market.

Keeley, appointed by Gov. Bob Wise in January, made the comment as he stopped in Berkeley County to meet with bar and private club owners, then with elected officials and others.

Much of the discussion at the second meeting focused on the proposed Club Venus, to be located on Royal Crest Drive. Area residents and others said the club will bring an unacceptable level of alcohol establishments to the area.

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County Commissioner President Howard Strauss produced aerial maps showing several nearby bars and clubs.

"I think adding another bar would be very damaging" to the surrounding area, he said.

Robert Mudge said he spends his days teaching respect and character to students, who then get on the bus and go home.

"If all they see are bars and strip joints, then what's the point?" he said. As a volunteer firefighter, he's also had to clean up many messes caused by drunken drivers, he said.

"We're begging you to improve the quality of life in Berkeley County," he told Keeley.

"People say the same thing, 'No more,'" said state Del. Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley.

George O'Connell, who would be the owner and manager of Club Venus, called the public response "typical. I've run into this wherever I've tried to do this."

He added: "I understand their concerns and want to work with (the state) to work them out."

Keeley is not required to hold a hearing. He repeatedly said he has not promised a liquor license to O'Connell. He was to tour the W.Va. 9 and U.S. 11 area with Berkeley County Sheriff Randy Smith to see how many bars, clubs and residences are in those areas.

"The office of the commission has pretty broad power when it comes down to concentration and the number of clubs," Keeley said. He will schedule the hearing, to be held at night in Berkeley County, when he gets the application for the license, he said.

He said he could not grant the request of Strauss and others to place a moratorium on new licenses in the county.

"That has to be on a case-by-case basis," he said. In an interview, Keeley also said a moratorium could not apply to an entire county, but only to a specific area, such as U.S. 11 and W.Va. 9, if he deems more clubs would make them unsafe.

He was also asked by others at the meeting to look at convenience stores. Residents said most of the liquor sold in the county comes from those stores.

Keeley told bar and club owners that he has no authority to move back the closing time of the bars from 3 a.m., as some citizens have suggested. That has to be done by the West Virginia Legislature, he said.

Keeley said the ABCA will have some authority over regulation of the gray machines under a bill just passed by the Legislature. The state will restrict the number of such machines - legal if played for amusement, illegal if a payout is made - to 9,000. The state will also tax the machines.

Keeley warned that the current laws against the gray machines will be enforced until the new law takes effect Jan. 1. Anyone caught violating the law in the next eight months will be ineligible to operate machines under the new law.

"You could be a murderer and allowed to operate these machines," he said. "But if you have been found guilty of a gaming offense, you can't operate them."

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