When Randy Anderson, the owner of The Music Cafe in Damascus, wants to have a beer with dinner when he dines out, he has to go to Germantown or Gaithersburg.
“Anywhere you go in the United States you’re allowed to enjoy [alcohol] except in this one little community,” he said of Damascus. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Within the boundaries of the unincorporated area of Damascus, businesses are banned from selling alcoholic beverages, making Damascus the last so-called “dry” town in Maryland.
This spring, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill calling for a referendum in which voters will chose whether sit-down restaurants in Damascus should be able to sell beer and light wine.
The bill was sponsored by Montgomery County’s statehouse delegation and state legislators of the 14th District, who represent Damascus, said Del. Craig Zucker (D-Dist.14) of Brookeville. Legislators sponsored the bill after receiving numerous requests from residents, Zucker said.
“We had heard from a lot of constituents who were asking to vote on it,” he said. “We really wanted to give folks in Damascus the opportunity to vote on this. ... [They] have really made the issue a priority.”
A similar bill allowing alcohol sales was passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor in 1996. However, later that year, the bill was defeated in a referendum vote.
The 2012 question will be on the ballot on election day, next Tuesday, as Question C. Those who vote “yes” on the question will approve the sale of alcohol in the town, while a vote of “no” will decline it.
Only registered voters of Montgomery County Election District 12, which includes Damascus, will vote on the question. Nearly 15,000 voters are registered in the district.
Anderson, who supports allowing alcohol sales, said he is doing everything he can to bring awareness to the issue and its possible impact on the town.
Starting Nov. 2 at 5:30 p.m., The Music Cafe, at 26528 Ridge Road, will host the “Vote Yes for Question C” music marathon.
More than 12 acts, including Anderson’s own Top 40 variety band, Love Lucy band, will perform during the event — which will run until 12:30 a.m. Nov. 4. The event also will feature discussions in between performances about the ballot question.
Anderson, who said he will apply for a permit to sell alcohol if the referendum passes, added that he knows first-hand how restaurants in the town are being impacted by not being able to sell wine and beer.
“Everybody here always raved about the food; the only thing people say is that they wish we had alcohol,” he said. “After a long day or weekend any responsible adult should be able to have an alcoholic beverage with their meal and not have to go out of town to get it.”
Chris Bell, vice president of Hekemian & Co., of Hackensack, N.J., the owner and developer of the Damascus Shopping Center on Main Street, said that while Hekemian and the center are not taking a position on the referendum issue, the topic of alcohol sales has been raised by potential tenants of the center, which completed a $20 million renovation in 2011.
“It does absolutely affect the quality and quantity of restaurants that would be interested in locating into the community,” Bell said.
Jay Traverso, one of the people leading the effort to pass the referendum, said that he’s glad to see local restaurants, such as the Music Cafe, taking a stand on the issue.
“I’m glad to see [The Music Cafe] come out in support of this. ... In the past people have boycotted the businesses,” Traverso said.
Bunny Galladora, state president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and a former resident of the town, said that if the referendum passes it would change the unique character of the Damascus community.
“I think it’s nice to be able to take your kids out to eat [in Damascus] and not be around alcohol,” she said. “There are so many negative consequences to alcohol use. ... I don’t think it’s going to help the economy; it’s going to drain the economy, where more money is going to go into law enforcement and [social services] costs.”
The state chapter of the Temperance Union distributed about 5,000 fliers to residents last week urging them to vote against the measure.
Traverso said that he believes the referendum has an “excellent chance” of passing this year.
“The demographics of the town have changed drastically over the years,” he said. “Many of the people who were against it have moved on. ... I think the time has come.”
Montgomery County Councilman Craig L. Rice (D-Dist.2) of Germantown, who represents Damascus, said that voters to whom he’s spoken are split on the issue.
“Originally I had heard a lot of folks in Damascus who wanted this, but, as of recently, I’ve heard a lot of people saying that they would prefer to have Damascus remain dry,” he said. “It’s going to be extremely close.”