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Wednesday, June 26,2013

Club life

The joys and pains of running a nightclub in Lansing

by ALLAN I. ROSS
Sam Inglot/City Pulse
Last week, Bar 30 closed after an underwhelming 10 months of business. Situated in the Heights at Eastwood, a still-under-construction lifestyle center north of Eastwood Towne Center in Lansing Township, the high concept entertainment/food venue had its challenges from the get-go — for starters, a touchy economy and a not-quite-ready-for prime-time location. But the thing that may have done it in was an identity crisis: Bar 30 was trying to be too many things at once. 

“The idea was to bring a place that was both a restaurant and a nightclub under one roof,” said Chuck Senatore, one of Bar 30’s co-owners and co-founder of the Tony Sacco’s Coal Oven Pizza chain, which has a location next door. “Unfortunately, we found that it was virtually impossible to get that to work. It was a new idea, but the two concepts were too difficult, so we closed it. It’s been sold, and now (the space is) going to be one thing, 100 percent.”  

In deference to the new owners, who haven’t officially made an announcement yet regarding their designs for the 7,900-square-foot space, Senatore wouldn’t elaborate on what that “one thing” was — or why he just didn’t scale back to either restaurant or club. However, a post on Bar 30’s Facebook wall, since removed, said that it will become a high-end restaurant named Capital Prime Steakhouse on Sept. 1. Reliable sources confirm this, but Joe Goodsir, the putative new owner, did not return a call for comment.      

When Bar 30 closed, Steve Hayward, executive director of the Eastwood Downtown Development Authority and development director for Lansing Township, said the business owners and the DDA “felt it was in the best interest to go in a different direction with a concept better supported by the market.” But what would make a steakhouse a better fit than a half restaurant/half nightclub? Was it just too early arriving to the party? 

If that’s the case, there’s someone else who can relate. Earlier this month, REO Town’s resident restaurateur/retail furniture king Dave Sheets entered final negotiations with a Holt Church to sell his Cadillac Club. It was a supper club when he opened it in 2004. It morphed into a hip-hop nightclub three years later, after failing to lure diners to that part of town. 

“I think I was just too far ahead of my time,” Sheets said. “I tried, but I just couldn’t make the restaurant work. I was making $1 million a year, but it took $1.2 million to break even. The next choice was a hip-hop venue, which was not something I wanted to do at all, but I had a mortgage.” 

He said that concept lasted about a year and a half, but parking lot altercations between his patrons led to one too many run-ins for him with the Lansing Police Department, at which point he decided to leave the nightclub business and shutter the Cadillac Club for good. 

“It wasn’t a good situation at all,” he said. “It was my ‘Field of Dreams.’ I thought if I built something nice in that part of town, they will come. God, was I wrong.”

But the outlook isn’t all bleak. Four Lasing nightclubs seem to be doing all right: Harem Urban Lounge and Secrets Nightclub in downtown Lansing; Fahrenheit Ultra Lounge & Grille on Lansing’s south side; and Spiral Dance & Video Bar in Old Town. 

Probably the biggest success of these, or at least the one with the biggest cultural impact, is Spiral, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. Owner Tom Donell says his goal was to make a place that catered to Lansing’s LGBT community without being exclusively a “gay bar.” 

“I think that what makes Spiral different is the various types of entertainment we provide,” Donell said by phone from Miami, where he operates the Palace Bar, a 25-year-old gay bar/restaurant he bought five years ago. “Spiral’s always been for all. I just wanted people to come and have a good time and enjoy the space.” 

Donell also owns the building in downtown Lansing that he converted from Club Paradise into Club X-Cel 10 years ago. He spent four months designing and installing the club’s interior to create a big city feel, but it just didn’t take off the same way Spiral did. 

“I wanted (my customers) to go back and forth between the two places, but that proved to be more difficult than I thought,” Donell said. He admits that nightclubs aren’t as relevant now as they were in their heyday in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but he thinks they’re still an important cultural aspect of the community. 

“It’s a combination of the change in music, the change in people’s social interactions and the change in the way people get their music,” Donell said. “Used to be the only place you could go to hear some of this music was the club. Now you can download it in two seconds and share it with your friends online. It’s so different nowadays.” 

Between Spiral and X-Cel, Donell started having drag nights and stripper nights, mixed in with DJs and “a little bit of everything.” That’s when he crossed paths with Darrin Sutton, a promoter who introduced hip-hop nights to Donell’s mix.  

“It was working out pretty good for a while, but eight months later (in 2002), there was a shooting outside Spiral, which unfortunately ruined it for everyone,” Donell said. “I met a lot of new people, a lot of good people, having the hip-hop night, but after that shooting, I was done.”  

“It’s such a shame,” Sutton said. “How some fools can come along and ruin it for everyone.” 

Sutton worked for Donell until last June, when he purchased Club X-Cel and turned it into Club Secrets, an 18-and-up nightclub open Thursday-Saturday. (Donell still owns the building.) Sutton said he’s concerned that Washington Avenue is too crowded to support seven bars, but he’s optimistic nonetheless.   

“Everybody wants to go where everybody’s at,” Sutton philosophized. “And everybody wants to feel safe. Those are the two keys. For the first one, all I have to do is throw the best parties. But the second one is a little tougher. I’ve been real strict with the amount of security, but it’s been important to get that staff to be friendly and courteous, too. You want to feel safe, not trapped.”  

Sutton says he goes with no fewer than five security guards on any given night, but will have as many as 20 at the larger events. He said that he spends “easily” $3,000- $5,000 a month on security, which he estimates at being about 25 percent of his budget. Secrets has a maximum capacity of 400, equating to about one security guard to every 20 guests. 

“A lot of promoters think I’m going overboard, but I don’t want to get a bad name,” Sutton said. “I’ve lost some business and taken some real heat because I’ve banned certain individuals, but I just will not take chances. I can’t stop violence, but I can certainly limit it. This is a really tough industry, and it’s too bad that I even have to worry about this stuff.” 

Fahrenheit has installed similar security precautions, due in no small part to the building’s stained history. Before its recent incarnation, it was most notoriously known for being the L.A. Globe, which lost its liquor license in 2001 — the first Lansing bar in 20 years to do so — after numerous run-ins with the law. The owners sued the city for discrimination and settled out of court for $200,000, but the damage was done. The bar closed and the building sat vacant for seven years. 

Then in 2008, Germaine Redding leased it and reopened the club as the Venue Live. The building is owned by New York-based Holiday Park Realty. Two years later it became Level II, and then in 2011 it became Fahrenheit. And somehow, through the flurry of name changes and interior upgrades, Redding thinks he’s finally shed that negative image. 

“We went from having the most amount of problems of any bar in town to having none at all,” said Redding. “I think we’ve found a formula that worked.” 

Redding said Fahrenheit is actually moving away from the nightclub concept and toward what he called a “House of Blues” model. He’s begun inviting high-profile music artists to play in the 17,000-square-foot, 700-person capacity venue. Hip-hop artist Juvenile has already played there twice, and Ludacris will make his second appearance there next month for his Common Ground after-party.

“The smoking ban really hurt us and the building’s reputation took a while to get past, but I think we’re on the right path now,” Redding said. “You’ve got to stay innovative, but you don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard. You can’t be everything to everyone.”

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