The rash of violence at D.C. nightspots in recent months has prompted many city officials to assume a hard-line stance on the local club scene through tough talk, stern letters, and, sometimes, even action. Amid all the political posturing, many venues are feeling the heat.
And it’s a lot hotter for some than for others. Compare, for instance, the recent experiences of Northwest go-go hub Club U and swank Northeast nightclub Dream.
Both businesses have seen a series of serious crimes, including robberies and assaults with deadly weapons. Both have received sharp rebukes from Metropolitan Police Department Chief Charles Ramsey.
But whereas “the number and severity of the criminal offenses” at Club U prompted Ramsey to demand that its liquor license be “permanently revoked” in a Feb. 14 letter, the police chief had something much different to say about Dream. On Feb. 28, he pounded the keyboard once again—to suggest that Dream’s license be…“re-evaluated.”
Owners of both clubs have since appeared before the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board, where they faced the possibility that the mayor-appointed panel might heed Ramsey’s advice. For Club U owners Warren Williams Sr. and Warren Williams Jr., that worst-case scenario has nearly become reality: The Club U bar has been closed for the past two months, with legal proceedings set to move forward next week toward a possible revocation.
Dream, meanwhile, agreed last week to an amiable settlement, in which owner Marc Barnes pledged to pay a $7,000 fine, serve a three-day license suspension—stayed one year—and devise a new and improved security plan. His club went about business as usual on Friday—when, police say, two more patrons got knifed inside the establishment.
How’d Barnes get off so easy? By doing all the right things:
DO cozy up to the people in charge.
For years, Barnes has enjoyed the unwavering support of many city officials. Prior to opening Dream, in 2001, he took Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham on a tour of the former warehouse as it was being transformed into the sprawling, four-level, 52,000-square-foot dance Mecca it is today. Graham was so impressed that he wrote a letter urging the ABC Board to grant Barnes “every possible favorable consideration.”
Such kind words will remain in your case file with the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA). It doesn’t hurt to follow up with a little campaign money, either, as Barnes did when he gave $500 to Graham’s 2002 re-election effort. Who knows? That same councilmember might one day head up the very committee that oversees ABRA—as Graham does now.
DON’T try to outwit the city on the paperwork.
Back in 1993, the Williamses signed a lease with the D.C. Office of Property Management (OPM) to operate a restaurant serving “both breakfast and luncheon related food items” on the first floor of the city-owned Frank D. Reeves Center at 14th and U Streets NW. Conveniently, the lease also allowed them to stay open after normal business hours “at such times and for such purposes as Landlord may approve in writing.” Only the Williamses never got approval for their clubby after-hours activities.
The ABC Board isn’t one to look favorably upon unapproved changes to legally binding documents—just ask anyone who’s made the mistake of ignoring the terms of a voluntary agreement. And any deception can provide rhetorical fodder for politicians, possibly even the same councilmember who now heads up the committee that oversees ABRA. “The lease was a fiction,” Graham has said of Club U.
DO install an intox room.
Or “care center,” as Dream calls it, where all fitshaced and/or fighting patrons are taken to be treated and/or detained until the cops and/or paramedics arrive, as club promoter Masoud Aboughaddareh has told S&T. “Security is there,” he explained back in November 2004. “They make a report; they take pictures; they make you sign the report so it’s accurate. We have medical people back there taking care of people, and that’s where we decide whether they need assistance….If it’s necessary, we bring in the cops. That way the liability is off our hands.”
It also demonstrates to regulators that you understand and appreciate their jobs. After all, it’s because incidents have a nasty tendency to arise that authorities make all those regulations in the first place. Show them you know this, and that you’ve also got a plan in place to deal with it, and you might win their sympathy the next time someone breaks a beer bottle over somebody else’s head in your club.
DON’T try making an intox room out of the lobby of a government building.
Putting unruly or intoxicated patrons outside the club and into an unsupervised area exposes said expelled clientele to a whole host of dangers. After police found 31-year-old Terrence Brown bleeding to death in the Reeves Center atrium, lawyers for Club U maintained that Brown was stabbed outside the establishment. Police charged that the incident took place inside and that the victim was then dumped into the lobby.
Without a controlled environment to document such incidents, it’s your word against the cops’. Whom do you assume the ABC Board will believe? The go-go promoter or the man in uniform?
DO invite the suits over to party.
When Barnes first unveiled his new megaclub, Mayor Anthony A. Williams was there in person. The mayor would return, too, most recently throwing a massive party there to celebrate D.C.’s hosting of the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament this past March.
When a venue that draws such big-name performers as comic Cedric the Entertainer and rapper Chingy becomes just as well known for Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange’s annual birthday bash, you know you’re in good.
Heck, even in the face of pesky reporters, the politicos will vow to come back. Questioned about the recent rash of violence at Dream, Williams told the Associated Press that “he’ll continue to host parties at the club unless Ramsey gives him ‘compelling reasons’ not to.”
DON’T invite the suits to become a party in a landlord/tenant dispute.
Served with an eviction notice back in 1999, in light of ongoing “unapproved parties” and other alleged lease violations, the Williamses took the OPM to court charging the city with violating the lease, too. Though that legal action did manage to keep Club U in business while the case dragged on for the next five years, it did little to shore up the venue’s credibility.
After all, if you prefer a fine to losing your license, then disclosing the fact that you’re not paying all your rent each month isn’t exactly the right kind of message to be sending to the ABC Board.
Fostering such an adversarial relationship with the city also can’t help your cause when you’re applying for additional police patrols. Dream has benefited from having off-duty police officers on-site when the club is open. Club U has not. In fact, according to Club U attorney Andrea Bagwell, the city has long refused to provide this “reimbursable detail” to the go-go hub.
DO admit to vulnerabilities and propose improvements.
After illegally consuming “three double shots of Bacardi rum” plus a complimentary glass of champagne at Dream on the night of August 10, 2002, then-20-year-old Jovada Welch, according to ABRA, got in her car and struck and killed U.S. Park Police Officer Hakim Farthing.
Barnes didn’t dispute the fact that Welch was inside his club on the night in question. Instead, he owned up—but not without suggesting that patrons can be tricky. “In his opinion,” ABRA records state, “the only way [she] could have gotten into Dream…is to have used another person’s legitimate ID.”
His punishment? Instead of suspending his license, the ABC Board opted to slap Barnes with the maximum sale-to-a-minor fine of $2,000 and further required Dream to establish an internal testing system to prevent future sales to underagers.
Fast-forward to 2005: On Jan. 29, a blade-wielding patron viciously stabbed two other clubgoers a total of seven times on the dance floor at Dream.
When asked how a suspect could have possibly sneaked such a weapon past two metal detectors and a reported 10 to 14 security personnel screening patrons at the entrance, Barnes suggested, according to an ABRA report, another bit of customer ingenuity: “[H]e might have carried the knife inside his shoe.”
Barnes has since promised to purchase “a shorter handheld silent vibrating metal detector” that can better detect such hidden objects.
DON’T plead impossibility or suggest that nothing could be done.
Club U lawyer David Wilmot has argued that the venue’s “three levels of security” make it virtually impossible for someone to sneak a weapon into the establishment. Patrons are patted down, put through metal detectors, and further screened with metal-detecting wands.
Club U security chief Jimmie Lee Parker similarly told the U Street Defender, “There’s no way you could get [a knife] in the club.”
Such deniability doesn’t leave much room for improvement, though, does it? How can the board be assured that you’ll continue fine-tuning to avoid future incidents? Remember, those crafty clubgoers are good for more than just cover charges.
DO provide parking.
Lots of parking.
Or some other side venture to offset those inevitable fines, which are always preferable to losing your license. To make $7,000 at Club U, you’d have to sling a whole bunch of $8 zombies and Long Island iced teas at the bar.
But at a slick multipronged operation like Dream, which rakes in, according to court papers, a reported $4 million annually, that’s less than the nightly income from parking fees: According to a lawsuit filed in the aftermath of the 2002 death of Dream parking-lot operator
Sidney Jackson, total revenues from parking at the club “could exceed $9,000 on a given night.”—Chris Shott
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