By now, most locals know that The Starting Gate liquor store closed its doors at the end of July. The building, which has occupied the northwest corner of Rt. 198 and Whiskey Bottom Road since 1960, is slated to be demolished—soon to be replaced by a sparkling new Royal Farms store and gas station.
The Starting Gate has been a polarizing spot for decades—particularly in the immediate neighborhood, where many residents of the relatively new Russett and Laurel Highlands communities associated the vagrancy, drugs, and prostitution problems that long plagued Whiskey Bottom Road with their proximity to The Starting Gate.
The building itself had become an eyesore over the years; its one-time iconic neon sign actually collapsed over a decade ago, and was never replaced.
To be sure, not everyone had a problem with The Starting Gate. Aside from countless regular customers over the years, there’s at least one person out there who has 50,000 reasons to be fond of it:
When I learned that it was closing, I’d planned on writing a brief history of the business for Lost Laurel. And I’ll still do that when time permits—taking a look back at the early days of the business, when it was quite the hot spot in town:
And other times, when it got a bit too hot:
But I discovered that The Starting Gate story isn’t actually finished yet… It’s also a story that seems to be quite misunderstood.
In fact, the business is planning to reopen in a new location nearby—3485 Laurel Fort Meade Road, which was the former McDonald’s across the street from the Maryland City Volunteer Fire Department.
However, as one might expect, the business is facing a number of obstacles, and has had a difficult time negotiating a new lease. Helen Jung, whose family has owned the liquor store for 27 years, was planning to reopen in October. But their liquor board hearing has been postponed to November 13th—if approved for a new license, they now plan to open in late January/early February 2019.
I met Helen and found her to be a kind, smart, and engaging business owner eager to clear up a lot of major misconceptions about The Starting Gate. This was particularly interesting to me in light of a thread I recently saw on another Laurel-themed Facebook page, in which someone from the Russett community had started a petition to block them from reopening, citing some “600 police calls per month,” (which I found rather suspicious, if not physically impossible, but I digress).
Let me backtrack for a moment, and just preface this with my own recollection of living in close proximity to The Starting Gate—before Russett was even built.
In the summer of 1987, my parents bought their first home—a townhouse in the then-new Laurel Highlands development on Laurel View Court, just off Whiskey Bottom Road and practically in The Starting Gate’s back yard. I was 14 years old, and well aware of the types of problems—both real and perceived—that The Starting Gate tended to draw. And I can remember a feeling of apprehension living so close by, as I’m sure many living in the community in more recent years have experienced as well.
What I didn’t know then—and what most folks probably don’t realize today, is that The Starting Gate isn’t just one entity. Sure, you may know that the building was segmented into three parts: the package liquor store on the corner, the bar in the center, and the restaurant on the opposite end; but since 1991, when Helen Jung’s family took over the liquor store, they have been completely unrelated to the bar. (The restaurant, too, having been closed for decades). In fact, she revealed that she wouldn’t even begin to know how to reach the owners of the bar—which closed in May.
Another important detail is that neither the liquor store nor the bar actually owned the property on which the building sat. It’s owned by an entity called SG Property, LLC—which is based all the way down in Vero Beach, Fl.
So, that brings me to the issue of community residents attempting to block the liquor store from reopening across the street. Although I’m no longer a Laurel resident myself—nor do I have any kind of stake in The Starting Gate’s business whatsoever—I feel it’s only fair to provide some facts that seem to be getting overlooked.
The “600 police calls”
True, The Starting Gate has indeed been the source of this hefty number of Anne Arundel County Police calls—but this figure is not a monthly total. In fact, it spans back to 2014, and represents calls from both the liquor store and the bar (again, two completely unrelated businesses, with the misfortune of a shared location).
More critically, half of these calls were actually for traffic violations—not the drunken shenanigans you might’ve expected.
Before the bar closed in May, both it and the liquor store were making daily calls to police for protection. Since the bar closed, the liquor store’s number of calls significantly reduced—once a week, if at all. Customers noted that there was less panhandling around the building, and expressed feeling safer visiting the store after the bar had closed.
Neither the liquor store nor the bar owned the property. Nearly a decade ago, the landlord approached the tenants with the idea of redeveloping the property—possibly adding a gas station and building a separate structure for the liquor store. Unfortunately for them, the liquor store obviously wasn’t included in the deal with Royal Farms. But because redevelopment has always been the long term goal, evidently, the landlord did not help with any upkeep for most of the 27 years that Helen’s family has been tenants.
It’s also important to note that immediately behind the former Starting Gate building is a section of Old Line Road and a patch of woodland that has been a haven to vagrants, trash piles, and God only knows what else for decades. In recent years, the road was fenced off in an effort to deter both vehicular and foot traffic behind the building. Both that road and the woods behind The Starting Gate are actually Anne Arundel County property.
When a Russett community liason approached Helen in 2016 about the trash piles and vagrancy problem, she tried in vain to get the county to acknowledge its responsibility. Neither the county nor her landlord responded, so Helen’s family actually spent their own money trying to clean up the tax payers’ property—something they continued to do until they closed the liquor store on July 31st.
A fresh start
The main reason Helen’s family has had a difficult time negotiating a new lease for their new location is that they wanted to find the right partnership with the right landlord—one who would no longer neglect their property or their responsibilities.
Starting Gate Liquors wants a fresh start. They want—and deserve—the opportunity to separate themselves from the stigma of the Starting Gate Bar & Lounge, and the neglected old property at the corner of Whiskey Bottom Road.
The new location at 3485 Laurel Fort Mead Road is a standalone structure and will house the liquor store only. There will be no bar. (The former bar owners have retired and will not be reopening again elsewhere).
Directly behind the new location is the Tall Oaks apartment complex—and their well-maintained fence sits in the clearing between the sites. This is a far cry from the county-neglected street and woods behind the old Starting Gate building.
Is Starting Gate Liquors still relevant? Yes.
After Total Wine opened their venerable doors less than a mile away some 20 years ago, Starting Gate Liquors didn’t wither away—it continued to thrive. Helen’s family hired a marketing firm to track their Google searches, and before closing, their monthly search hits were in the 4,000 range. Since closing, that number has nearly doubled. Customers do seem to want the business to reopen.
Helen notes that for the past 27 years, her family has seen many positive developments in the Maryland City community. She feels that their customers have matured with them, and looks forward to serving them again with a much better foundation. Crime in the area has seen a steady decline, and that trend will undoubtedly continue now that the bar is gone.
Frankly, the biggest problem in that neighborhood is the string of 1-star (and that’s probably a generous rating) motels in the short stretch of Route 198 east of Whiskey Bottom Road. Statistically, that’s where the bulk of the serious criminal activity has always been.
I would urge those who live in the immediate neighborhood (and beyond) to consider all of these factors before condemning a historic family business that has lasted longer than most—and in spite of some significant challenges that most of us had probably never been aware of. Helen tells me that since that one complaint in 2016 about the trash piles behind the old Starting Gate building, the community had not approached her with any other issues—but she has always remained open to any suggestions or concerns they may have.
I would also encourage you to support their reopening at the hearing for their new license:
Tuesday, November 13, 2018
210 Holiday Court