A law passed in 2003 prohibits the transfer—or change in location—of Class B liquor licenses within 300 feet of a church. O’Donnell Square is capped by a church on each end, and most of the businesses between are bars and pubs, within 300 feet of one church or the other.
So currently, if any of the square’s 12 Type B licensees—Nacho Mama’s, Claddaugh Pub, Looney’s and others—wanted to move, then they would have to move outside the square.
But Senate Bill 233/House Bill 134 would relax the church rule, so long as the churches gave their blessings to a potential liquor license transfer within the square. After securing written approval from the churches, a licensee seeking a transfer would then continue the normal process and be approved or denied by the Liquor Licensing Board.
“[O’Donnell Square] is tight quarters,” said attorney Stanley Fine, who represents Nacho Mama’s. “Let’s say that at some point in time, a larger space in the square became available. This just gives options.”
Fine initially proposed the legislation change to State Senator Bill Ferguson and Delegate Brian McHale, who introduced it in the state legislature. (Liquor licensing laws are the purview of the state, rather than the city of Baltimore.)
Fine said that the law change was the brainchild of Patrick “Scunny” McCusker, the founder and owner of Nacho Mama’s. McCusker died last summer in a bicycle accident.
“It was Scunny’s idea, but I think he was just looking for a little bit of flexibility on the square,” said Fine. “Spaces are sometimes small, or you might have a landlord you can’t make a deal with.”
Fine said that Nacho Mama’s is in a multi-year lease and does not currently have plans to move, “but in the event it would, this would allow us to move somewhere else on the square.”
Senator Ferguson called the proposed legislation “a very minor exception to the extremely tight rules in the 46th District.”
Ferguson said that when McCusker’s estate approached himself and McHale with the idea, they told them, “We won’t do anything at all until you have letters of approval from all of the community associations.”
Fine provided emails that indicate approval from the Canton Community Association and the Canton Square Homeowners Association.
Canton Community Association President Darryl Jurkiewicz confirmed his associations approval of the proposed legislation change.
“Scunny had talked to me about it over the last two or three years,” Jurkiewicz said. “When they presented it to us and we discussed it, it sounded fair and reasonable, as long as it was confined to the square.”
Though the bill allows transfer of Class B liquor licenses within O’Donnell Square, it doesn’t allow new licenses to transfer into the square. So if Nacho Mama’s moved, no bar could occupy its former building, unless that establishment was one of the 11 other bars already on the square.
“It keeps a balance on the number of liquor establishments in that tight area,” said Ferguson.
McCusker himself participated in the community push that instated the church rule in O’Donnell Square in the first place, about a decade ago. The Baltimore Sun reported in 2003 that the owners of Federal Hill’s Ropewalk Tavern had planned to open a bar in the old fire station building at O’Donnell St. and Linwood Ave. Members of the community—including McCusker, St. Casimir’s Church, and members of the Canton Community Association—did not want that to happen, the Baltimore Sun reported, and George Della, then the 46th District State Senator, sponsored legislation to extend the church rule to O’Donnell Square.
Ferguson said that the church rule had already been established in most of Baltimore City by that point. He also noted that Nacho Mama’s was not the first establishment to suggest changing it.
“This is not the first time that somebody’s wanted to move within the 300 foot rule,” Ferguson said, “but it’s the only time there’s been this level of community support.”
Nacho Mama’s arrived in O’Donnell Square in 1994. It’s sister restaurant, Mama’s on the Half Shell, opened in 2003, Fine said.
“The square really wouldn’t be the square without Nacho Mama’s,” said Jurkiewicz.
by Erik Zygmont