Cecil County Golf Course Creates “Disco;” Politically Connected Bittersweet Faces Liquor Review
When is a Cecil County golf course a disco and what do late night live music and dancing have to do with playing 18 holes on the grassy links in the sunshine?
That was the issue before the Cecil County Board of License Commissioners (liquor board) recently as the three-member panel reviewed the troubled Bittersweet Golf Course on Route 213 in Elkton. Under its special liquor license category, GC, Bittersweet holds a golf course license that is supposed to be used for on-premises alcohol consumption by golfers and their guests. But evidence shows part of the facility was converted to a “disco,” including a stage for bands, without advance approval from the liquor board.
“You’ve basically turned the place into a disco,” said William Gerweck, a board commissioner who sharply criticized the operation at the panel’s 12/28/11 meeting. “You ran roughshod over all the rules,” Gerweck said, and, “If it were up to me, I’d have your license pulled.”
In fact, the license was pulled briefly due to a technical question regarding residency. But it was reinstated after Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36) contacted county officials and demanded reinstatement, according to sources and an operator of the golf facility.
But the next question for the liquor board, discussed at length at its 12/28/11 meeting, was whether the golf course was in violation of its GC license rules by shifting its bar and restaurant operations to a music and dancing venue in the evening, long after golfers have left the links. After detailed questions at the hearing, the board adjourned to executive session to decide the issue and officials said they would not disclose the decision, if any, to the public until after the licensee is notified by certified letter.
[UPDATE: The board decided that the disco operations must cease, according to a copy of a letter obtained by Cecil Times on 1/3/12. The board found that “activity occurring on your premises is not within the scope of the Golf Course license..” Furthermore, “this use must be discontinued immediately and the sale of alcoholic beverages must be limited to activities that are golf-related,” the board wrote. Failure to comply would result in a violation being charged by the board and a compliance hearing before the panel.]
The golf course– and some of its politically well-connected principals– has been embroiled in litigation for several years, with claims, counterclaims, appeals and multiple legal actions. One of the cases involved Cecil Bank suing Charles F. Sposato– the longtime senior executive of the bank– as well as the 1190 Augustine Herman LC that owns the golf course for more than $3 million. Sposato has since stepped down from the bank’s board but retained his title as chairman of Cecil Bancorp, Inc., the parent company of Cecil Bank.
The liquor license is currently issued to 1190 Augustine Herman LC; and Francis P. Connors and Robert J. Ewing, executives of Liberty Management, which operates the golf course under a lease. The license lists the operation as trading as Bittersweet Golf Club at Brantwood.
Liquor board officials said the license was “pulled” by the panel on 11/30/11 after Mary Halsey, president and CEO of Cecil Bank, resigned from the license. She was the only Cecil County resident on the license and liquor board rules require at least one county resident and registered voter as a condition of holding a license. (Connors said he was surprised and that no one notified him of Halsey’s departure before the license was pulled.) But Gerweck said the license was pulled not only because of Halsey’s resignation but because the board wanted “someone to come in and explain” the changes in the operation.
However, the liquor board reinstated the license during a 12/9/11 conference call among the panel’s three members. Connors told Cecil Times he worked with Smigiel on the issue and would continue to work with him on the license problems. Asked if Smigiel was working on the issue for him as a delegate or a private attorney, Connors replied, “Both.”
To replace Halsey on the liquor license, a newly recruited local resident, Constance. M. Pawley, made a belated first appearance before the liquor board at the 12/28 meeting, after initially canceling. She said she works as a nurse and administrator for Dr. Said Aslum. Dr. Aslum is a principal of Empero LLC, which has a sub-lease with the Liberty group to operate the restaurant on the golf club premises and which has instituted the disco and music venues questioned by the board. Pawley said she would not play an active role in the operations.
Connors said that Sposato brought Dr. Aslum to the Liberty group as a way to infuse some money into the operation and relieve Liberty of the day to day operation of a restaurant and bar. Liberty is experienced in operating golf courses up and down the East Coast and the firm’s expertise was welcomed by local golfers when it was announced it would be taking over operations at the course. Connors said he prefers to focus his attention on the golf operations and thought that bringing in someone else to run the restaurant and bar would remove a headache for him.
Connors said he and his partners had contemplated walking away from its three-year lease, signed in April, 2010, to operate Bittersweet. “ I thought, ‘I gotta cut my losses and get out of this’,” he said, adding that his group has invested “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to try to improve the facility.
Revenues have been down, bad weather kept golfers away during prime season last summer and fall, and there were issues with trying to change the “culture” of the local course. He said he put a stop to golfers bringing their own liquor to imbibe on the course while playing the links. He described Bittersweet as “a down and dirty public golf course.”
Gerweck and board president Tim Snelling were sympathetic to Connors’ plight in trying to turn around a golf course that has had operational problems for years. But, Snelling said, “I don’t want to see this license become a nightclub.”
Carrie Taylor, the third member of the liquor board, said she thought Connors was “trying to do good for Cecil County.”