May 30, 2006

City Bar’s License for Grabs on eBay: Club Owners Asking $125,000, Get Liquor Board’s Blessing

By Lynn Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

May 23--Tired of late nights and complaining neighbors, the owners of The Royal, a club in South Baltimore, are doing what Americans now do with things they don't want anymore.

They're going on eBay.

Mark Lasker and Peter Allen are selling their Baltimore liquor license on the Internet. And the ad, written by Lasker, is a grabber:

"Rare Opportunity. These licenses are no longer issued by the Baltimore City Liquor Board. They are only available from an ever dwindling pool of pre-existing licenses."

The asking price is $125,000 - a sum bar industry insiders say is not exorbitant considering the license's location near Federal Hill, a hub of nightlife in the city that is off-limits to new tavern licenses. The license could also be moved to another part of the city's 46th legislative district, which includes Canton and Fells Point.

"If they get more than $125,000, that would set the standard," said Melvin J. Kodenski, a Baltimore attorney who has helped broker dozens of liquor license sales over the years.

Liquor board officials said they'd never heard of anyone selling a license online but gave the concept a thumbs up.

"As long as it's legal and ethical, God bless 'em," said the liquor board's acting executive secretary, Samuel T. Daniels Jr. "And if they get that price, God did bless 'em."

Lasker said he listed the license on eBay about two weeks ago and, according to the counter at the bottom of his ad page, it has been viewed by more than 450 interested or just plain curious parties. Lasker said he and Allen had received more than 10 e-mail inquiries as of Friday. They've had no offers.

"EBay is simply a larger market to sell to," Lasker said. "It's great. I just bought a camera for my Dad on eBay. It's so easy."

The men, who are in their 30s, are no eBay neophytes. They listed their bar building, at Light and Randall streets, on eBay's real-estate section a few months ago and got calls from potential buyers in New York and Chicago.

The bar did not sell. The business partners have decided to move ahead with plans to redevelop the site as a restaurant and apartments, but Lasker and Allen say they are hopeful that eBay will create a similar buzz about their liquor license.

"I think the license is worth $125,000," said Allen, an Australian who moved to Baltimore when he married a city resident. "The fact that we've already had inquiries says a lot."

But selling a liquor license is more complicated than purchasing a camera or a vintage Barbie, and when word got out that The Royal's license was for sale on eBay, some bar critics called foul. Liquor board officials said they received several e-mails and calls about the posting over the weekend but said they told those who inquired that it was OK. The liquor board has to approve all license transfers.

"It's very novel," Daniels said. "As long as the license is legitimate, and it is, I don't know why a seller can't employ any legal means to sell it."

An eBay spokeswoman said she wasn't aware of any reason why Lasker and Allen couldn't sell their liquor license online, although she cautioned would-be buyers to do their homework. She could not say how often people try to sell liquor licenses through the Internet site.

"I don't know that it is something that we have listed very often on the site," said the spokeswoman, Catherine England. "It sounds like it may have happened in the past, but we don't have a category for liquor licenses. That is usually a good barometer."

A search of eBay yesterday turned up one other liquor license for sale, this one attached to an historic, 12-room hotel in Harrisburg, Pa. The seller was asking $350,000 for the entire package and was trying to entice prospective buyers with this line: "After the dinner-hour your patrons can relax in the pub to the entertainment of your choice."

The Royal, while not historic, has a colorful past. In 2002, when it was run under a different name by other owners, the bar was raided by city vice police and cited with adult entertainment violations. At the time, the bar was operating as a swingers club where barmaids wore see-through tops and patrons engaged in sex acts on couches on the second floor, according to police reports.

Lasker and Allen purchased the bar in 2003 and tried to turn it into a live-music venue, but neighbors complained of noise, trash and parking hassles. The men installed insulation in an effort to keep noise levels down, but some residents still complained. In the end, the business partners said they got tired of fighting. Today, they open the bar occasionally to keep their license valid. Licenses that go unused for 180 days or more are subject to revocation.

"I just got exhausted," said Lasker, who previously co-owned a Federal Hill bar called Boomerang. "I couldn't do it anymore."

Leigh Ratiner, chairman of the recently created Baltimore City Liquor Advisory Committee, an advisory group that will work with the liquor board to review liquor laws, initially balked at the idea of an eBay liquor license sale. He relaxed when he was told that Lasker had promised to add a sentence to his ad explaining that no sale would be final without liquor board approval.

"If that's done, I have no problem with it," said Ratiner, a retired lawyer who is pushing for liquor law reform. "Otherwise, it makes it appear that these things are just up for grabs. I don't think liquor licenses should be traded like baseball cards."


Copyright (c) 2006, The Baltimore Sun

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