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Businesses Owners On The Block Protest Proposal To Close Establishments On The Street By 10 P.M.

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Business owners on The Block protested outside City Hall on Tuesday, saying a bill in the Maryland General Assembly that would shut down strip clubs and bars on the street by 10 p.m. would cripple their livelihoods.

Sara Wantland, a co-owner of Club Pussycat, a strip club on East Baltimore Street, said 70% of business on the street occurs after 10 p.m.

"Just because our work is a little different from the normal day-to-day work doesn't mean that it's not as equivalent as everyone else's," she said. "It's just you chose that career path, and we chose this one."

Nathaniel Brown, owner of Lust at 408 E. Baltimore St., said he has a lot of employees who depend on his business.

"I've worked my butt off for seven years and put things in place as a business owner, and they're just trying to snatch it away," he said.

Thiru Vignarajah, a former Maryland deputy attorney general and political candidate who is acting as a spokesman for the owners, questioned the reasoning for the legislation, which backers said is a response to rising crime from the stretch of strip clubs, bars and adult stores.

He also noted the proximity of the businesses to Baltimore police headquarters, which is adjacent to 400 E. Baltimore St.

"If you can't keep The Block safe when police headquarters is a stone's throw away, what are you gonna do when crime gets out of control in Fells Point or Edmondson Village? In Canton or Federal Hill?" he asked. "You shut those businesses down, too."

Owners on The Block benefit from a safer environment that makes customers and tourists feel comfortable and have been cooperative with police during past investigations, Vignarajah added.

With the battle over the future of The Block playing out in the state legislature, he called on the mayor and city council to stand up for the businesses.

Introduced Jan. 12, Senate Bill 222 would require businesses on the 400 block of E. Baltimore Street with a Class A or Class BD-7 liquor license, or an adult entertainment license, to close by 10 p.m. The text outlines an area bounded by E. Fayette Street to the north, Water Street to the south, Holliday and Commerce streets to the west, and Gay Street to the east.

On Jan. 20, a coalition of lawmakers was a joint effort from Senate President Bill Ferguson, 46th District Dels. Luke Clippinger, Robbyn Lewis, and Brooke Lierman, City Councilman Eric Costello and the Baltimore Police Department.

Even though police headquarters is adjacent from The Block, officials said the number of officers deployed to the area has put a strain on the resources of the Central District.

Last year, there were eight shootings with 11 victims, 15 robberies, 17 aggravated assaults and one suspicious death, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said.

"Violence within and resulting from The Block in Baltimore City's central business district has drastically increased in recent months despite a robust and consistent deployment by the Baltimore City Police Department," he said, later adding, "Many of those were brazen incidents with police officers in the immediate vicinity."

Lawmakers involved with the proposal have said that, unlike other districts where bars let out late at night, the owners of businesses on The Block haven't

"We have met with them repeatedly to give them an opportunity to get the situation under control, and they failed to do it so this is the resulting action. Because they have failed to clean it up for themselves it is now going to be cleaned up for them," said Costello.

On Jan. 21, business owners held a news conference to push back.

Speaking Tuesday, the owners challenged the accounts of meetings with elected officials. They said they had not met with Ferguson, Lierman, Clippinger, Harrison, Mayor Brandon Scott or Baltimore City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby to discuss problems on the street.

Wantland claimed Costello appeared at one meeting last summer and left after five minutes.

Speaking with WJZ, the councilman called that characterization "patently false," saying he's met with the owners five or six times over the last seven years.

Costello said he most recently attended with owners a meeting at the Staybridge Suites Hotel on Sept. 13 and stayed for about 50 minutes. The meeting came nearly a month after police shot a man moments after he pulled out a gun on a group of people and an officer, he said.

"At this most recent meeting, block owners / managers were once again advised that the situation was completely out of control," Costello wrote in an email to WJZ.

There was a shooting on The Block the night after the meeting, he noted.

At the press conference Tuesday, business owners from Fells Point and Little Italy spoke in support of the entrepreneurs downtown.

Ron Furman, owner of the beer bar Max's Taphouse, said he wanted to defend all businesses, saying the plan amounts to fighting crime by shutting down the city.

"We cannot institute a curfew to this neighborhood, or any other commercial area for that matter," he said. "Our businesses and their employees have suffered so much as the last few years."

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