Upon suspending the Latin Palace’s license for two months for multiple violations, Liquor Board Chairman Thomas Ward told licensee Jose “Enrique” Ribadeneira last week that he would have to work better with the community before he could get it back.
Judging by the sign Ribadeneira has posted outside his shuttered club, at 509-13 South Broadway, that prospect does not seem too likely for the moment.
“We’re going to continue to operate soon as we’ve done for the past 18 years. JUSTICE WILL PREVAIL – RACISM SHOULD NOT,” it reads in part.
A message on the club’s Facebook page continues the defiant theme, saying, “The people in charge of our community no longer wanted the Latin Palace to have music or dancing (crazy right?) But we did not listen.”
“They’re portraying me as a horrible person,” Ribadeneira complained to The Brew over the weekend, discussing an online petition and other efforts he is making to garner support for an appeal of the suspension.
His allegations of bias angered critics of the Fells Point club, including Fells Prospect Association president Victor Corbin, who is Hispanic.
“Since when does enforcing the rule of law revert to racism. This is an unfounded accusation. The law is color blind,” Corbin wrote in a letter sent to the Liquor Board on Saturday calling on them to challenge attorneys and applicants for the basis of such allegations.
Violations and Questions
On Thursday, Ward and his fellow commissioners tried to keep the hearing focused on the specifics of the alleged violations. Looking at the file, the board’s executive secretary, Michelle Bailey-Hedgepeth, confirmed that a restriction forbidding live entertainment was placed on the club’s license in 1998.
An inspector testified that live entertainment and dancing occurred at the club last November 3, and that a boxing match was held there on February 20th, following a warning by a liquor inspector days earlier that Ribadeneira’s license did not permit it.
The licensee was also charged on December 7 with keeping an exit door locked during operating hours and refusing to produce identification when asked to do so by a police officer.
Seemingly distraught and at times rambling, Ribadeneira did not directly contradict any of the facts presented.
His remarks and those of his critics only touched on the backstory behind several questions that lingered afterwards:
Violation aside, how is it that a club basically known for Latin music and salsa dancing has a live entertainment restriction? And why has live entertainment continued at the establishment since the restriction was imposed?
No Problems With Other Establishments
Joanne Masopust, president of the Fells Point Community Organization, said she learned that the prohibition dates back to a time when community leaders were concerned with other liquor establishments in the area, including a club called “723.”
Upon hearing that the Latin Palace has a capacity of over 600 people, she said, the community “feared that they would have similar problems” and pushed for restrictions.
Masopust said she didn’t know about the restrictions – and that Latin Palace had been having live entertainment for years in spite of them – until last August when Ribadeneira formally applied to the Liquor Board to have them lifted.
The community associations, she said, tried to pursue with him the same process they successfully used with other establishments in the area – negotiate terms and agree on a mutually acceptable Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to allow live entertainment to take place.
Sunlight Lounge, Santa Clara and Carolina’s Tex-Mex are among the Latino-owned establishments in the area that have done so, noted Corbin. “People should know that, when we have Enrique talking about racism,” Corbin said.
At several meetings, Corbin and Masopust said, Ribadeneira would not give them a clear answer to questions about what kind of entertainment he wanted to have, on what days and at what hours.
“How can you create an MOU when someone won’t answer those basic questions,” Corbin said. He said they told Ribadeneira’s attorney, John A. Pica Jr., to tell his client to stop having live entertainment until all parties reached an understanding. But this never happened. The commissioners were told on Thursday that other live entertainment violations against the club are pending.
“At first, a number of people were very supportive of him, then people started feeling like they could not trust him,” Masopust said, adding that one underlying fear is that he will turn to party promoters to bring in more business.
Promoters who bring in large numbers of rowdy patrons from outside the neighborhood have caused problems for Fells Point in the past, she said.
Officials Frequented Club
Ribadeneira, for his part, gave a number of explanations for his troubles, among them the new leadership at the Liquor Board.
“Now you have this new board and whatever-her-name-is [Masopust] going after small business,” Ribadeneira said.
He reiterated his charge that city officials gave him the impression that live entertainment was permitted there because they have inspected and (for personal reasons) frequented his club.
“We’ve been operating 18, 17 years and never had issues,” he said. “You had the Liquor Board Commissioner [Stephan Fogleman] who used to come in here and dance.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, he said, had her 40th birthday party there. (We have asked both Fogleman and the mayor’s press office for comment.) The mayor’s communications chief, Kevin Harris, said Rawlings-Blake actually had her 30th birthday party there.
No reply so far from Fogleman, but a remark he made on Twitter suggests he thinks Ribadeneira was not referring to him: “A lot of explaining to do tonight when my wife discovered that I dance.” Ribadeneira declined today to elaborate on his earlier comment saying “who danced or didn’t dance at my club is not the point.”
An arrangement whereby people could attend events at the club as private “members” also gave him the belief he could continue to hold events there. He also repeated allegations that cultural stereotypes are behind the effort to regulate him more closely. “They have a wrong concept of Latinos,” he said.
Ribadeneira said he is trying to increase business at the club because people depend on him (“30 people are without jobs, they have no jobs now because of this!”) and that he wants to pass the operation on to his daughter.
He has planned a meeting tomorrow (Tuesday) at 6 p.m. at the club with other Hispanic organizations in hopes of galvanizing support as he appeals the suspension.
“I am going to fight this,” he said.