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Advertise on the Tentacle

March 28, 2006

First Saturday ''Goodies''

Roy Meachum

An unnatural pall lingers among Pushkin's constituents on the subject of the recent descent of health department inquisitors on the highly successful First Saturday Gallery Walks.

Their first appearance did little more that create chaos among merchants on the stretch of North Market and East Patrick streets the English pointer in my life claims as his special jurisdiction.

The New Year's monthly celebration attracted as usual a stream of out-of-town visitors, their numbers restrained by January's cold and bleak darkness. Many local residents remained unaware bureaucracy had moved in.

While fostered and supported by the Downtown Frederick Partnership, as usual, confusion reigned among business district stores and dealers, because they had received little guidance from the organization that represents them.

Health department nabobs didn't help. Their letter on the subject was left to individual interpretation. How to get the new license was less than clear.

Having applied and paid her $15, one of Pushkin's very favorite ladies found herself facing that evening and the promised arrival of inspecting teams without proof her shop was in compliance.

Rather than taking a chance on a possible hassle and maybe an unspecified fine, she decided to lock her door earlier than usual, sacrificing trade from the heightened batch of customers that the Gallery Walk has developed the past three years.

The day after, she remained mystified about what she was supposed to do.

Hunched down on her carpet, the better to greet the English pointer at his eye level, her normal approach to his visits, she teased and handed over dog biscuits, all the while expressing frustration. As with most of her colleagues and competitors, the lady had no answers.

By the following First Saturday, her shop was in full compliance, to the extent that her past accommodations to Gallery Walk traditions had been severely cut back.

Over the years, in the best competitive spirit that has fostered America's businesses, what had started simply as a way of welcoming folks to the monthly celebration had progressed way beyond hard candy and cheese with crackers, accompanied by wine or punch.

A few places whistled up professional caterers to lay on spreads that made a trip up the pike really worthwhile, in addition to the special merchandize, new and old, featured throughout the historic downtown.

In Pushkin's daily visits along his turf, at no time did I hear about anyone taking advantage; apparently, visitors and locals offered manners in exchange for the treats.

In my frequent attendance during First Saturday events, I never saw food carelessly handled; owners or their staff kept things in order. When it came to wine or punch, there were no concerns for abuses; servings were small and carefully doled out.

After all, the hospitality was designed to attract trade, not to sate appetites; to that end, as proven month-after-month, Frederick's "restaurant row" stood more than ready. Gallery Walk tourists generally packed the city's feeding establishments on those Saturdays.

It was, in short, a highly satisfactory arrangement that contributed in no small way to the Downtown Frederick Partnership winning awards, including the Great American Main Street distinction last year.

To the best of my knowledge, none of Pushkin's friends and patrons along North Market and East Patrick streets has a clue why their monthly promotions attracted the attention of health department bureaucrats.

It may have been the promotional efforts. Baltimore and Washington radio stations have carried announcements; their news departments have jumped all over the excitement and lure provided by First Saturday Gallery Walk.

If folks in far-flung Virginia and West Virginia, parts of Pennsylvania and Delaware's Eastern Shore learned about our monthly downtown party, why wouldn't word reach Frederick's county health department? And in something less than three years?

Why would a national organization present its most prestigious recognition before local sanitation experts assert their right to inspect the hospitality provided by merchants?

And where, in all this, were the recently honored officials of the Downtown Frederick Partnership?

In no instance have I heard a single word about the organization attempting to intercede on the part of its members, even to the point of simple clarification?

As said at the outset of this column, a pall has settled on the subject, a great silence broken by a single merchant.

In protest and disgust, Cinegraphics' owner Eric Krasner blocked the department's inspectors, as my column reported in January. In addition, he resigned membership in the partnership and wrote a registered letter backed up by an email to the bureaucrats, as I commented following February's Gallery Walk.

As of this writing Mr. Krasner has received neither a health department reply nor a response from downtown's leadership, nor does he expect any before the weekend brings April Fool's Day and the next First Saturday.

His colleagues around Square Corner have chosen to stick to their business and that's their right; he bears no ill will toward his sometime competitors. But his face and tongue become livid on the subject of the reigning bureaucrats, including those in the partnership.

Mr. Krasner, and the rest of the community, may receive some answer, maybe even a summons that promises to prompt a legal response. I have no doubt on that score.

The Cinegraphics' owner and prime purveyor of commercial free speech rights, as exemplified by his merchandize, shows little inclination to back down from his argument that some Christian rituals threaten the general health more.

His argument cannot be ignored that liturgical churches like Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians offer communion to all takers from a single chalice, simply swiped by a cloth before passed on, and that fact represents a denial of rights to the downtown merchants caught in the current fracas.

Anyone who doubts Eric Krasner would seriously entertain taking his beef to the highest court in the nation has simply never talked to him. To compromise would sacrifice everything the man says he stands for, both publicly and on a personal basis.

This ruckus could prove a doozie.

Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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