The alcohol-infused fight over sports betting in DC’s Capitol Hill area

The spot at 319 Pennsylvania Ave. SE where the sportsbook Handle 19 is trying to open. (WTOP/John Domen)

A proposed sportsbook that a Virginia businessman wants to open on Pennsylvania Avenue in Southeast D.C. is getting pushback from people in the neighborhood who say it doesn’t belong there.

Neighbors can’t do much about his betting license application, so they’re going after the liquor license application associated with the business. Some in the fight admit that it’s not the alcohol license they’re even worried about; it’s just what they have to fight with.

Shane August, a Virginia Beach-based venture capitalist, has been working to open a sportsbook in the District. His application for a Class B sports betting license is still under review, but that’s not subject to a community challenge. His liquor license application is a different story.

August originally sought to open his sportsbook, to be called Handle 19, in the Adams Morgan area, but he ended up leasing a spot on Capitol Hill. The space, at 319 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, is the former location of the bar Stanton and Greene, which closed two years ago. On either side of the storefront are restaurants, including some that serve alcohol, and a liquor store.

One resident engaged in the opposition downplays the commercial activity there and calls it a residential neighborhood.

“This business will be a detriment to our neighborhood and to our kids,” said Brian Wise, who added that he’s lived on Capitol Hill for 15 years and would live about 100 feet away from Handle 19. He said there are too many schools with young children in close proximity to allow a sportsbook to operate there.

“This is a business that will combine alcohol, gambling and kids,” said Wise. “That is a problem for people that live in the neighborhood.”

So what about the bars that are already there?

“You’re bringing in the extreme, emotional highs and lows that are associated with gambling, combined with the alcohol and young children that go to the schools in the area, and it’s a recipe for disaster,” said Wise. “It makes this liquor license substantially different from any other bar or restaurant in the area.

“This establishment would be worse than if you were to put a strip club in this area,” Wise added. “Because at least in a strip club, what happens inside that establishment stays within that establishment.”

What Wise said he and other neighbors are worried about, and what August envisions, are very different. August said Handle 19 will be unlike any other venue in the District, promising a “Vegas-style” sportsbook facility. But simply saying “Las Vegas” can conjure up lots of different images.

“We want to create an atmosphere that’s open and inviting to everybody,” said August, who describes Handle 19 as “a plush, upscale sports bar. Not your local watering hole — not to diminish or marginalize those types of establishments, but that’s a little bit different from what we’re looking for.”

He added: “We’re looking for a comfortable, inviting and entertaining atmosphere.”

It’s almost exactly what some neighborhood leaders hope to attract — if only it wouldn’t come with a betting license.

“If they wanted to just open up and be a sports bar, they wouldn’t have any problem at all,” said Jennifer Samolyk, the ANC Commissioner for the 6B01 office, which covers that block of Pennsylvania Avenue. Samolyk said she lives about three blocks away from the planned sportsbook. “I think it was the gaming aspect that the neighbors don’t feel comfortable with.”

Her perception is shared by Brian Ready, who chairs the ANC 6B area.

“I think it was the combination of gaming and liquor together,” said Ready. “When you have liquor and you’re gaming, [and] you’re having a large amount of cash and lingering around,” it can lead to “a lot of different possible problems in different ways.”

Neither seemed to think there was much room for compromise, though both agreed that August and his lawyer have tried to engage the community and complimented their efforts to do so.

“I think they’d be great additions to the area,” said Ready. “They’re opening a hospitality business during a time when hospitality businesses are going away. I think it would complement the businesses that are on that block and it would help out that whole area. Yes, there might be some mitigating circumstances, but we don’t know yet.”

However, residents who live there are “under the impression that it’s the wrong fit for the neighborhood,” said Ready. “There’s not anything that they (Handle 19) can do or change in their operation that would make them (residents) change their mind.”

“They’ve been really wonderful to work with,” said Samolyk. However, “Brian and I are elected officials here, and we have to represent the people that voted for us, and overwhelmingly they’re just against having a sportsbook at that location.”

But as far as August is concerned, the law is on his side, and he has every intention of moving forward with one of the few independently run sportsbooks in the District whenever his license is approved.

“Some people just in their core are naturally against gaming, and that’s fine. We respect their opinion,” said August. “Our job is to educate the public on what we’re trying to do, how we’re trying to do it. But at the end of the day, if someone is against gaming, we’re not going to change their mind. But … we’re within the law, because sports wagering is allowed in D.C., and we have a legal right to operate.”

While it’s not clear when his gaming license application will be resolved, the hearing on his liquor license application is set for early January.

“The former tenant, Stanton and Greene, they had a liquor license to serve alcoholic beverages at their location,” said August. “We’re not doing anything else but we’re offering sports wagering.

“A lot of the pushback, I think, at its core is around sports gaming,” he added. “That ship has already sailed. Sports wagering is approved and allowed in the District of Columbia. I think some of the neighbors may be using the liquor license as leverage to deter us.”

The ANC leaders there admit that’s the case.

“The only avenue that’s available to us is the liquor license,” said Samolyk.

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