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Spoiling the Party

Critics complain that Albany’s new cabaret license is unnecessarily—and unexpectedly—restrictive

by Elyse Beaudoin on August 23, 2012 · 2 comments

Sprinkles of rain dotted the pavement at Townsend Park in Albany on Monday. Half of the hundred or so protesters huddled under trees and umbrellas; some stood behind the Spanish-American War Monument to avoid the news camera crews. The other half lined the side of Henry Johnson Boulevard holding signs, drums and a guitar. Many cars drove by and honked in support of the group. Organizer Shawn Gillie led the protest with chants over a megaphone and after convening in the park, proceeded to march down to City Hall to attend a public hearing before the Albany Common Council.

Protestors in Albany

Keep the music: Protestors rally against cabaret laws in Albany. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“The city has been trying to pass a cabaret license for about the last two years,” said Gillie. “I have been against it from the start.”

Gillie, who works at Waterworks Pub and Rocks, as a radio DJ for FLY 92, and as a comedian, said that permits limiting the ability for bars and venues to host amplified entertainment could damage establishments and entertainers economically. The limitations of the cabaret license extend to all forms of amplified entertainment including music, comedy, karaoke, open-mic and trivia nights and more, but having to apply for a license is not what has angered many bar and club owners in Albany.

When the license started to appear on the windows of bars and pubs last Wednesday, owners realized that there were additional time and age restrictions that were never discussed in council meetings and legislation. These added stipulations state that there can be no amplified entertainment past 12 midnight on Sunday through Thursday, and past 2 AM on Friday and Saturday. They also state that no one under the age of 21 can be in a bar past 11 PM on any night.

“We tried in the past, and people just won’t come out before 12 AM,” said Gillie. “I lost a gig on Wednesday because of these restrictions.”

Local musicians, including Erin Harkes of the Erin Harkes Band and Brian Miller of the Deadbeats, are worried that the city of Albany will continue to ‘chip away at any artistic outlet.’

“Moving into an entertainment district and complaining about the bars is like moving into the country and complaining about the farms,” said Miller at the Albany Common Council meeting.

Albany Common Councilman Ronald Bailey admitted that these time and age restrictions were never discussed within the legislation.

“We will do what we can to legally rectify this,” said Bailey. “Economically, people are going to have to close their bars and lose their staff. We will have a lot more abandoned buildings as a result.”

In addition to the extra time and age restrictions, some owners were also under the impression that the cabaret license was only for bars and pubs, not nightclubs. Al Famiano, the owner of Oh Bar and Fuze Box, said that he had filled out the applications for Oh Bar, but not for Fuze Box, and was taken by surprise.

“It was a bait and switch,” said Famiano. “I have been part of this discussion for about a year now. These regulations were never discussed.”

Famiano worried that lost of revenue from ending his Thursday night karaoke two hours early, and not being able to have a DJ on all night for 1st Friday, will have a significant economic impact on Oh Bar.

“I was very up-front and honest about the hours in which we have karaoke and DJs when applying for the license,” said Famiano. “It’s disingenuous and it’s poor governing. What worries me is what the government will try to change next without telling us.”

Jeffery Jamison, Director of the Albany Division of Buildings and Regulatory Compliance, claimed that these time and age restrictions are to “create a balanced approach” in the community. He also claimed that many of these businesses have been putting on entertainment illegally in the past and the cabaret license is a way for business owners to do so through legal means.

Hear us now: Protestors in Albany voice their anger over cabaret licenses. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“We are trying to protect the quality of life,” said Jamison.

Richard Berkley of the Hudson Park Neighborhood Association shared a similar sentiment. “We are suffering quality-of-life issues in our neighborhoods,” he said at the Albany Common Council hearing. “People are tagging the sides of our buildings, publicly urinating, breaking bottles and trespassing. Bar owners claim that serving alcohol has nothing to do with this, but I disagree.”

Berkley asked the Common Council to move Albany’s last call from 4 AM to 2 AM, but still acknowledged that the additional time and age restrictions on the cabaret license were not the answer.

“If the cabaret license is perfected, which many seem to be calling for tonight,” said Berkley, “that would be an appropriate solution.”

Bar owners claimed that quality of life was not brought up during the discussion of the cabaret license and that it was mostly about entertainment fees being paid to the city.

“If they thought there was a quality-of-life issue, then we could have had an open discussion about it,” said Famiano. “I don’t think that these extra time limitations will have an effect on crime.”

Famiano said that in the 20 years that he has had a 4 AM liquor license, he has not had a problem with the police. He lives in the Center Square neighborhood and frequently walks home between the hours of 2 AM and 4 AM. He said that he has never had a problem with crime.

“If there is a bad bar owner, there are laws in place to take care of that,” said Famiano. “The police have the right to report that owner to the state liquor authorities. They shouldn’t just punish everyone.”

Local political activist Marlon Anderson voiced a similar view at the Albany Common Council hearing.

“Blanket curfews don’t work,” said Anderson. “Communities like Saratoga and Troy are competing for every dollar, and we are driving business away. We cannot afford legislation that kills jobs and kills business.”

Many worry that the restrictions will slow business for bars, restaurants, pizza shops and hotels, and that business will migrate to cities that allow bars to stay open later, which could also lead to more drunk driving.

Some local bar and club owners are afraid of the backlash of addressing public officials on the issue of additional restrictions to the cabaret license. Many have either kept silent or hired lawyers to speak on their behalf.

“Police need to step up their patrols to deal with the problem of crime,” said attorney and former Albany police officer Stephen DeNigris at the Albany Common Council hearing.

DeNigris, who represents Robert Savoca, the owner of Waterworks Pub, also addressed the issue of how long it will take to correct the cabaret license now that it has been altered and the loss of revenue during this waiting period.

“My client has to appeal to the Zoning Board, which will take six weeks just to be heard,” said DeNigris. “In that time, he will have to break contracts and will lose business and clientele.”

While many bar owners are dealing with the additional restrictions and the ‘One strike, you’re out’ mentality of the cabaret license, others are being completely rejected. Andrea Wilkinson, owner of Simply Fish & Jazz, along with the owners of Jackie’s and Figure 10, have all been denied a cabaret license.

“The three major minority club owners in the South End have been denied their licenses,” said Wilkinson at the Albany Common Council. “That’s enough for a class-action law suit.”

Wilkinson has run Simply Fish & Jazz for eight years and claims to be a law-abiding citizen who pays taxes. She said that there is no reason she should be denied her license.

“I might go to jail, but I am playing my music,” said Wilkinson.

DeNigris has convinced the city of Albany to allow Waterworks to operate under normal conditions until further notice and has scheduled a meeting at the mayor’s office on Monday.