$117 dancing license has some Maine businesses scratching heads

People dance at Tantrum, a nightclub in Bangor. Under state statute, clubs, bars, restaurants, event centers and other venues where dancing happens, whether in a large crowd or small group, are required to pay $117 to apply for a dance license from the state.
Courtesy of Tantrum staff
People dance at Tantrum, a nightclub in Bangor. Under state statute, clubs, bars, restaurants, event centers and other venues where dancing happens, whether in a large crowd or small group, are required to pay $117 to apply for a dance license from the state.
Posted May 10, 2013, at 6:04 p.m.
Last modified May 11, 2013, at 5:46 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Bars, clubs and similar businesses should double-check the license collection on their walls or tell patrons to leave their dancing shoes at home, according to the state fire marshal’s office.

The litany of local and state licenses have some business owners and managers confused about whether required state “dancing licenses” apply to them and for how long.

Under state statute, clubs, bars, restaurants, event centers and other venues where dancing happens, whether in a large crowd or small group, are required to pay $117 to apply for a dance license from the state. Renewal is required annually.

That license is separate from the municipal special amusement licenses that allow live music and dancing. If businesses want their patrons to be allowed to dance, they need both state and local approval, according to Assistant Fire Marshal Richard McCarthy.

The state publishes information about the status of business licenses online. McCarthy said Tuesday that the list, which also indicates when a business’s license is active, expired, pending or denied, is kept up-to-date.

McCarthy said the statute was meant to protect the safety of patrons at bars and clubs. With music and dancing can come dark rooms and drinking, creating a potentially unsafe environment. He cited nightclub fires in Rhode Island and Brazil, which left hundreds of people dead, as worst-case scenarios.

He said the licensing and fire marshal’s office inspections can be especially important in monitoring businesses in outlying communities that don’t have their own code enforcement or fire departments.

The statute, written in 1967 and updated several times since, states that “A building or any part of the building used for public dancing purposes, either habitually or occasionally, must have posted at all times of dances a proper license obtained from the Commissioner of Public Safety [through the Fire Marshal’s Office].”

The statute defines neither “dancing” nor “occasional,” leaving the question of whether an unlicensed business is violating the statute open to some interpretation. Under the dictionary definition of “dance,” even toe-tapping or head-bobbing to the rhythm of music could be considered a form of dancing.

“Where does it start? That’s not an easy question because that’s not noted in statute,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy acknowledged that the lack of definition or threshold in the statute leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but he said the fire marshal’s office wouldn’t count toe-tapping or head-bobbing at the bar as dancing.

He also said inspectors wouldn’t tell a grocery store to apply for a license because someone dances to a song playing in the background while pushing their grocery cart through the store.

The licensing requirement applies more to people dancing in groups, large or small, typically to some sort of live music, McCarthy said.

Most Bangor-area businesses known for their large dance floors and disc jockey and music offerings — for example, Tantrum and the Half Acre in Bangor and Bear Brew Pub in Orono — have active dance licenses, according to state records. But those records show the licensing status of other, smaller venues is mixed.

Last month, the Kennebec Journal reported on a crackdown in Hallowell, where fire inspectors swept the city after receiving complaints that Shenanigans nightclub in Augusta had covered its walls and ceiling in plastic for a party. Dance licenses were few and far between in Hallowell, where most bars had to apply after receiving a warning following their fire marshal inspections, according to the Kennebec Journal.

Businesses that don’t heed post-inspection warnings could face a criminal summons, according to McCarthy.

The assistant fire marshal said there is no set schedule of when and where inspections happen in the state, but that investigators typically will inspect local bars all at once after receiving a complaint about a particular business.

Lance Cowan, general manager of The Roost, an Orono bar, said Tuesday that he thought dancing was covered under the city’s $150 special amusement license. Bangor’s special amusement license costs $312.

When informed the fire marshal’s office has a separate required license, Cowan read a license he had from that office which allowed for “dance, theater and haunted houses” in the building.

The Roost’s dance license is listed on the state’s website as being expired. Cowan said a fire inspector came into the business on St. Patrick’s Day in 2011 and, after looking over the building, informed the business that it didn’t have the entertainment and dancing license from the fire marshal’s office. The Roost paid the $117 application fee and its license was approved.

“To my understanding, we’re in accordance with both state and local licenses,” Cowan said, adding that the license doesn’t include a printed expiration date and that he and the owner thought it applied until the next inspection. In fact, the state requires that businesses apply for renewal of that license each year, which is why the state has listed it as expired.

All these licenses can be a challenge to keep track of, according to area business owners.

“I’ve got six or seven licenses on the wall here,” Cowan said.

Alex Gray, promoter for Bangor’s Waterfront Concerts, said requiring that many licenses and permits for a business to operate is excessive. Gray, who was in the bar business before starting Waterfront Concerts, argued that many state and local licensing and permitting requirements are the result of antiquated liquor laws. He said the state should “blow up” its licensing rules and start fresh, allowing businesses to pay one large fee for one all-encompassing license.

“You shouldn’t need 342 permits to run a business in the state of Maine,” Gray said, exaggerating. “It’s just counterintuitive to running a good business environment.”

Doug Fuss, owner of Bull Feeney’s in Portland, agreed the state could consolidate some of its licensing to take some of the load off business owners. The restaurant and bar, which hosts live music and dancing on its second floor three nights a week, recently applied for renewal of its dancing license.

“That would simplify the process for everyone,” Fuss said.

Fuss said he can see how some businesses would overlook the fire marshal’s office dancing license because it isn’t tied to local or state liquor licensing.

Right now, the half-dozen licenses and permits required of a bar are “just one more thing that we have hanging over our head,” Fuss said, adding that keeping track of their expiration dates is yet another thing to remember.

Most business owners and managers without dancing licenses said they likely would apply if the fire marshal’s office confronted them.

“If we’re required to have it, we would suck it up and do what needed to be done to get it,” Cowan said of the license. He said The Roost would only argue against the licensing requirement if other businesses chose to do the same.

Still other businesses are unsure about whether this license applies to them. Geaghan’s Pub in Bangor is a restaurant and pub where live music is a rarity and dancing even rarer, according to Peter Geaghan.

While the restaurant doesn’t have “entertainment,” it does have Sunday Irish music sessions where a few musicians get together to play jigs and traditional Celtic tunes. Patrons typically clap along and, on rare occasions, get up to dance. Geaghan said his business does not have a dancing license.

“Honestly, I’ve never really thought that much about it, where it’s so infrequent,” Geaghan said.

One day each year, on St. Patrick’s Day, when multiple live bands and bagpipers descend on Geaghan’s for an all-day celebration, dancing is inevitable, as some leave their seats to dance around in what little room is left in the packed building.

McCarthy said the word “occasional” in the statute means it would apply in a situation where dancing happens once a week, and perhaps less frequently.

If the fire marshal were to raise concerns, Geaghan said he would pursue a license.

“It’s worth $117 for me to not be uncomfortable with them walking in,” he said, adding that “it’s one thing to get away with something, it’s another thing to be unaware.”

Jeff Brown, general manager of Sea Dog Brewing Co., which has a dancing license and hosts DJs and dancing on weekends, said he wasn’t sure what unlicensed businesses could do to avoid allowing people to dance in their establishments if they didn’t want to get a license.

“When people start breaking out dancing, what are you going to do?” Brown said.

While the statute may not be well defined, and while some businesses argue it overreaches, McCarthy said the fire marshal’s office isn’t in control of that.

“We have to follow statute,” McCarthy said. “I can’t change statute.”

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