(March 29, 2013) A policy change working its way through Annapolis could have a big impact on the resort area’s bars and nightlife, further loosening restrictions on Berlin’s Ocean Downs casino while also changing the game for liquor purveyors and regulatory agencies in a three-way deal.

The Maryland State Senate is still working through the details of Senate Bill 949, while the House of Delegates has passed House Bill 999. The two bills are similar, although the Senate version – as of press time – features some further de-restrictions.

Both policies were initially introduced to allow a fine increase, upping the maximum charge from $1,000 to $4,000, for an individual or business that facilitates drinking in public areas or drinking beyond allowed hours.

But amendments, added to the bills over the past two weeks, have revealed a much more intensive revision, centering on the desire of Ocean Downs Casino to have the same liquor-serving rights as the state’s other authorized gambling facilities.

Under state law, casinos may be open 24 hours per day, and may serve liquor during all the hours they are open. However, Ocean Downs must stop serving at 2 a.m., a rule is in-keeping with the liquor policy for all other license holders in the Worcester County.

Ocean Downs’ proprietors have continually argued that this restriction, which was intended to keep the casino on equal footing with other resort attractions, puts it at a disadvantage relative to other casinos, such as those in Delaware, and detracts from the around-the-clock business model casinos typically rely on.

When Ocean Downs began to press the state for a change this year, legislators, local officials, and business representatives reportedly got together to broker a compromise deal.

Under HB999, Worcester County’s Board of License Commissioners – the state-appointed board that issues and sets restrictions on liquor licenses – would be allowed to issue a special “entertainment facility” (class EF) license.

This license would be available only to those applicants with capital investments of $45 million or more, de-facto restricting acquisition to Ocean Downs, but would allow the business to serve alcohol from 9 a.m. until 4 a.m. the following day – two hours longer than elsewhere.

In exchange for this edge given to the casino, liquor licensees throughout the county would see the sunset date moved up on the state policy that forces them to buy their spirits from the county’s Department of Liquor Control.

This policy was scheduled to be eliminated, allowing licensed businesses to purchase liquor from any wholesaler, as of May 1, 2016. But under the proposed legislation, this date will be bumped up to July 1, 2014, ending the county dispensary’s monopoly earlier.

“I negotiated in good faith that there was a quid pro quo with the folks in Ocean City, that they were okay with the 4 a.m. close for the casino if they got out from under the thumb of the county liquor board sooner,” said Delegate Mike McDermott.

The Senate bill, in its current iteration, also goes on to specify that an “class EF” liquor license “authorizes the playing of music and dancing,” giving further leniency to the restrictions on Ocean Downs’ entertainment offerings.

Although fears of the casino siphoning off Ocean City’s tourist base were rife when the facility was first authorized, they appear to have become less of a threat.

“I don’t know that the entertainment was such as huge concern as it was in the beginning,” said Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association Executive Director Susan Jones. “Our main concern would be them being able to build a hotel.”

Further, in deference to the county, the Senate bill allows the Department of Liquor Control to itself act as a liquor wholesaler, with the ability to buy liquor from the producer and sell it wholesale to other outlets, including its own dispensaries.

This clause would allow the county to compete for business from bars and restaurants alongside the state’s other whole liquor wholesalers, given that its state-mandated monopoly will be ending sooner than expected.

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