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Camden revisiting business curfew

Council is to vote this week on having most retailers close by midnight to curb drug crimes.

Gasoline and alcohol would be the only things for sale legally in Camden late at night under a business curfew that city officials are expected to vote on this week.

The proposal is a broader version of a plan, withdrawn two months ago by City Council, that would have imposed earlier closing times only on take-out restaurants. Both measures were designed to curb drug-related crime, which Camden police say often occurs near the after-hours eateries.

Under the revised proposal, every restaurant, retail store, and fast-food joint in the city's nine square miles would close from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weekdays and midnight to 6 a.m. on weekends.

Unlike the earlier curfew plan, which some said discriminated against takeouts, this one would have McDonald's and mom-and-pop stores play by the same rules, City Attorney Marc Riondino said.

"When you get into exemptions, where do you stop?" he asked. "That's where we got into problems" last time.

Exceptions to the curfew would be bars and taverns with liquor licenses and automotive services at gas stations. Mini-marts at filling stations would have to close early. City officials are working on another ordinance to shorten liquor-stores hours.

Opponents say the proposal is antibusiness, but Camden officials argue that it would improve quality of life. The bill is scheduled to be put up for Council approval after a second reading Tuesday.

At a meeting in April, dozens of residents showed up to support the take-out curfew. Council President Frank Moran said he wanted to meet with business owners about the ordinance, but proprietors say a meeting was never held.

According to neighborhood leaders, some late-night and 24-hour takeouts attract people more interested in buying drugs than Chinese food or fried chicken.

Police say drug customers from neighboring municipalities often become the victims of crimes near the late-night establishments, especially on Mount Ephraim Avenue near Virtua Camden hospital.

The business corridor in the area - considered one of Camden's most dangerous neighborhoods - bustles with students buying after-school snacks and women pushing strollers in the daytime. Once the sun goes down, the street gets quieter, and by late evening only a few takeouts are open. That's when trouble starts, police say.

About 12:30 a.m. on a weeknight last month, a 34-year-old Blackwood man approached two men outside China Garden on Mount Ephraim Avenue to buy drugs, according to a police report. When he headed back to his 2004 Mercury Mountaineer, the men followed him and "demanded the vehicle while holding a knife," according to the report. They stole the SUV, but were apprehended shortly after the suburbanite reported the crime.

A few weeks earlier, a couple of blocks away, a 37-year-old Runnemede man's vehicle was stolen at gunpoint shortly before midnight when he gave a ride to drug dealers from whom he had bought cocaine near a Chinese restaurant on Chase Street.

Neither of the two victims returned phone calls seeking comment.

In recent months, city residents have been shot and killed late at night on the 1500 block of Mount Ephraim, where a Crown Fried Chicken and a few Chinese stores have extended hours.

Owners of the city's Crown Fried Chicken franchises say the city should focus on the crime outside their stores rather than impose a business curfew.

"This is very bad for us, for the business, and very bad for Camden," said Ali Khan, an owner of the Crown on Mount Ephraim Avenue and another, at Broadway and Martin Luther King Boulevard, that is open 24 hours.

"There are a lot of situations in Camden," Khan said when asked if crime was a problem outside his restaurant. "Before Crown Chicken, was there no crime, no shootings?"

He and his business partners have teamed with city activist Frank Fulbrook to fight the curfew. If the ordinance is approved, they plan to go to court.

Though Philadelphia does not regulate business hours, except to require that bars close at 2 a.m., several New Jersey cities have some type of business curfew.

In Newark, take-out restaurants within 200 feet of a residential zone may not conduct business between 2 and 6 a.m., and all liquor stores must close at 10 p.m.

In Jersey City, a 2004 ordinance prohibits restaurants and retail establishments in certain areas from operating between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. The curfew, which survived a court challenge by the owner of a Crown Fried Chicken, is focused on 12 streets that officials say are a haven for criminal activity, city spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill said.

In Camden, businesses that violate the curfew could have their operating licenses suspended or revoked.