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Dry clubs may get hours extension

(Feb. 7, 2014) The Ocean City Council this week cautiously passed the first reading of an ordinance that would allow so-called “dry nightclubs” to extend their hours by request.

The potential change to the city’s regulation of such establishments, which are permitted to admit only patrons ages 15 to 20, was introduced last week at the behest of Epic Brands, whose cheerleading competitions host after-parties at the city’s only current dry club, H2O on Worcester Street.

“The last couple of years, because this event has grown, the older cheerleaders aren’t getting out [of the competition] soon enough to come down and enjoy the after-party,” said H2O owner Rob Rosenblit.

“I pointed out to them that we had a number of complaints from parents and participants that they were paying for tickets but didn’t have enough time to enjoy the event.”

The city’s ordinance on dry clubs mandates a 12:45 a.m. closing time, with no provision for any exceptions. In a letter to city officials, Epic expressed a desire to extend this to 1:45 a.m.

If the ordinance change receives another favorable vote at a second public reading, Epic Brands would then be able to request extended hours for their three events at H2O, scheduled for Feb. 22, March 15, and April 5, 2014.

“Right now, you’re voting on the ordinance that would facilitate those requests,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “If the ordinance passes two readings, then we will come back and make a decision [on specific dates and times for Epic].”

But despite the overall ordinance change and the specific request by Epic being two separate issues in a legal sense, the fact that the ordinance change was directly spurred by Epic’s request problematically ties the two together.

“This is for a specific group, that we value their business, and want to make it as easy as possible for them,” said Council Secretary Mary Knight.

However, Knight said, “I take this very seriously, and if there are other requests like this, it’s not going to be something that’s the norm [to grant extended hours].”

On the other hand, the city would be establishing a rule that might apply to any number of groups.

“I think this is opening up Pandora’s box,” said Councilman Brent Ashley, who pointed out that the council would be establishing a de-facto standard to the effect that any group meeting the same criteria as the cheerleaders would also qualify for additional hours at H2O – or any other dry club that may be established in the resort.

“I think we have to have confidence in ourselves … and in future mayors and councils and this is going to have to be done on a case-by-case basis,” Meehan said. “If we make a decision and it’s not the right one, we don’t have to do it again.”

“That sounds good, but I just don’t see it working out like that,” Ashley said.

Rosenblit said he has no plans for any other events that would go past 12:45 a.m.

“Even during the summer, there’s not five nights that we stay open all the way to 12:45,” he said.

Councilwoman Margaret Pillas said she would only support a provision for extended hours if it was exclusive to private parties. Although Rosenblit sells tickets to the Epic event at the convention center during the cheerleading competition, there is no requirement that one must be a participant to go to the after-party.

“How do we know it’s not anybody else coming into the building?” Pillas asked. “Based on that, I’m not going to vote for this.”

The city’s code on dry nightclubs was adopted in 2001 as part of a crackdown on what the city found to be widespread illicit behavior in underage establishments.

Most importantly, the code specifies that any business license granted under the dry nightclub definition can only admit patrons age 15 and over. Further, if patrons 21 and over are admitted, then no one ages 15-20 may be admitted simultaneously.

This mutually exclusive age separation combats the city’s stated findings, per the code, that “dry nightclubs provide an arena for predatory-type sexual crimes.”

The majority of these issues are naturally encountered in the summer, while Epic’s events will occur in the winter and early spring. That, plus the massive economic impact the cheerleading competitions have on the resort’s off-season, were leveraged as reasons for the ordinance change.

Last year, Epic voiced concern that they would be losing valuable floor space to the city’s Performing Arts Center, which is currently being built inside the convention center, resulting in a panic that the cheerleading events would be leaving the resort.

“There was a lot of question if we were losing the cheer events,” Meehan said. “But this [request] is the representative from the event telling us that more kids are coming than ever before.”

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