A proposal from a group of Statesboro businessmen to open a huge nightclub near the center of downtown has created a controversy among residents, the city council and even drew a threat of a possible racial discrimination lawsuit from Councilman Gary Lewis.
At the Statesboro City Council meeting earlier this week, tempers flared when discussion turned to the opening of Club Zone. Owners hope to open a nightclub at the intersection of Johnson Street and West Main Street that could hold more than 1,500 people. The club received a zoning variance earlier this year that would allow it to open with few parking spaces on site.
Club Zone occupies nearly 13,000 feet in a steel warehouse building with a stucco front on Johnson Street. It is flanked to the west by a set of railroad tracks and a service road, and to the east by a drainage ditch. The rear of the property is a sizable field, much of which is unusable until the land is graded and piles of old railroad ties are removed.
At Tuesday’s city council meeting, discussion about Club Zone began as Councilman Travis Chance made a motion to allow Raybon Anderson to address his concerns about the new club. Anderson is a lifelong Bulloch native and has operated Bulloch Fertilizer on West Main for 45 years.
Anderson expressed concerns about the crime levels on and near West Main. He said police have been called to his business 10 times in the last 16 months. These crimes, he said, caused thousands of dollars worth of property damage at his business, resulting in his insurance company threatening to drop coverage.
“We have to encourage and make sure we have good growth, not growth,” Anderson said. “Crime on West Main Street is not good. The ones of us who live and work in that neighborhood understand that.”
Before the meeting, Statesboro Police Chief Stan York said there are certainly incidents in the vicinity of Club Zone, but the crime rate is no higher than any other area of the city.
Anderson also said council members with potential conflicts of interest should not vote on certain agenda items.
“If any member of this council has or will have any financial gain from any business locating in our city, they should excuse themselves from discussions and or vote on this issue,” Anderson said.
After Anderson spoke, Councilman Will Britt expressed his concern over the parking situation at Club Zone. He said the council has in the past dictated the number of spaces required for a particular business.
“I bring that to the council for us to discuss or to charge the city manager to make a recommendation basing the occupancy of the new business on the availability they have for parking,” Britt said. “The business ought to open. They have a right to open. But I do believe we’ve set a precedent in Statesboro that says we can determine how many spaces you have.”
Councilman Gary Lewis then responded to Anderson and Britt. He said both are now concerned about West Main, yet have ignored Luetta Moore Park for years. The Park is located on Martin Luther King Boulevard, about a half mile from the proposed Club Zone site.
“I will step down from this city council before I deal with racial profiling and racial discrimination over there,” Lewis said. “You’re worried about Zone Club coming over there … and it’s never got a chance to open. The police are doing a good job over there.”
Lewis said he considers himself a consultant for the business, even though he has no financial connection to or members of his families involved in the ownership of the club. He suggested racial reasons as to why people are so concerned about Club Zone, which has not opened, when Britt’s former club Legends had two fatal shootings yet continued to remain open.
“It’s going to open. If a racial discrimination lawsuit has to be filed and proven, it’s going to open,” Lewis said.
A motion was then passed to authorize City Manager Shane Haynes to look into the parking requirements for Club Zone.
Haynes said his understanding is that the council wants him to check if the proposed parking plan conforms to city ordinances and that the resulting traffic will move in a “responsible and normal manner.” He said there is worry about people leaving the restaurant and walking across the street and that live entertainment will flood the surrounding neighborhood with cars.
“I think that’s the focus of the concern: how to accommodate and move traffic effectively,” Haynes said. “Because it’s a restaurant, we’re bound by the parking requirements that fall under the restaurant guidelines of the current city zoning ordinance.”
Haynes said he also will make sure Club Zone has property secured for additional parking. At this point, no parking or site plan has been approved and a stucco wall blocks the entrance to the proposed driveway. Haynes said he would give a report to the council that outlines the intended use of the facility, its occupancy and describing other businesses in the area that utilize public parking.
“We’ll have to look at it from a global perspective and how it impacts downtown through West Main as a whole,” Haynes said. “We talked with the applicant about that, it’s been a major concern from the police department’s standpoint, from Chief York, and just from a common sense safety standpoint.”
Haynes said the club’s owners are very cooperative and in their plan they’ve offered to identify parking on two additional properties nearby, where they say they have permission to park.
Currently the areas they described are zoned residential, which does not permit off-site parking.
Club Zone was granted a variance to delay paving its on-site parking lot until October 2009. However, officials said this will not relieve them of the requirement of providing an adequate number of spaces for their anticipated occupancy.
Chief Dennis Merrifield said there is a formula, prescribed in the Life Safety codes published by the National Fire Protection Association and adopted by reference by the city and state, which determines the maximum occupancy of a building or business.
“From that it’s a straight forward formula you work down and then you add up all the numbers – that where you get your (final) number,” Merrifield said. “The issue with Club Zone is that they’ve got a few tables and a large open space.”
According to the calculations in the code, the maximum occupancy of Club Zone is 1,567. However, Planning Director Jim Shaw and city fire inspector Ronnie Show both said guidelines in the city’s alcohol ordinance supersede the fire code. Under these rules, the maximum occupancy is 713.
A more appropriate business classification, Merrifield said, would have been a bar or tavern, allowed under the building and zoning codes. However, the current alcohol ordinances do not allow for that classification in the city.
Merrifield said businesses with occupancy over 300 require additional fire protection such as a sprinklers in the ceiling, additional emergency lighting, a switch for turning off the air conditioning system in the event of a fire and a voice enunciation alarm. Once conditions are met, the state fire marshal will inspect the premises. Should any provisions be left out the club would not be able to open. He said he anticipated Club Zone owners would meet all the appropriate conditions.
In addition to fire requirements and maximum occupancy, Shaw said parking requirements are also affected by the alcohol ordinance.
“We have always applied the restaurant requirement. If you look at the alcohol ordinance, every business (that serves alcohol) is considered a restaurant,” said Jim Shaw, the city’s planning director.
Shaw said businesses with similar assembly spaces were approved in the past were required to have a parking space for every four patrons, essentially treating capacity just like seating. For Club Zone, this would equate to 179 parking spaces.
During an Alcohol Control Board meeting Tuesday, held just before the council meeting Board Chairman Joe Brannen said the board planned to vote to waive the first reading of the license application. Before that vote took place, an unidentified representative from Club Zone brought up a newspaper announcement and published agenda for the Feb. 19 ACB meeting showing a first reading was scheduled.
However, a city search for the Feb. 19 meeting revealed that no meeting took place. It is believed the meeting was postponed until Feb. 26 where no mention of Club Zone’s first reading was on the agenda or included in the minutes.
Alcohol Board member Nancy Waters has been a board for more than three years. She said she could not recall another instance where a first reading was waived for a license applicant.
Brannen and City Attorney Sam Brannen both said the alcohol ordinance has no requirement for two readings.
“I was looking at the ordinance and I couldn’t find where we should be doing it,” Joe Brannen said. “We have two readings, but what I’m saying I don’t see in the ordinance where it’s required.”
Sam Brannen said the license was approved by the ACB subject to numerous conditions.
Other license holders are wondering why Club Zone was approved for an alcohol license without all the appropriate documentation previously required by the board. According to Waters and Sam Brannen, up until about two years ago, all required documentation – including business license, fire inspection, approved site plan and a certificate of occupancy – was required to be completed before the ACB would hold an application hearing.
“At some point in time, under (former city manager) George Wood’s direction, because of the inconvenience to the applicants, if the person had one particular thing that they hadn’t finished that would be completed in the next 10 days, (Wood) didn’t want these people to wait for another 30 days before they could open up and do business.”
Sam Brannen said that while the internal policy was changed, he did not know if the ordinances were changed in support of the policy shift, due to the numerous changes in the alcohol ordinance over the past two years. He also said staff would check and make sure all the conditions and contingencies would be met before the alcohol license would be issued.
Haynes said he wants to have the appearance and practice of going through a standardized procedure, so as not to appear favorable to any particular business. He said the best case scenario would be for the applicant to have all required paperwork before they go before the Alcohol Board.
“It’s good practice, if you have a policy, law or rule, that you follow your procedure and you make it consistent from one applicant to the next,” Haynes said. “My hope would be that, yes, we would have a clearly defined application process that follows the law and everyone, regardless of the applicant, is following those guidelines.”
Haynes said the ACB chose to hear (the application) and expedite it and, according to a discussion with attorney Brannen, they have the authority to do that.
Club Zone, located at the corner of 201 Johnson Street, is owned by Kimberly Reynolds. It has a dining area that will offer a full menu and seating for 70, along with a VIP room off the main room with windows overlooking a large open area in the back of the club for live concerts. Other key employees include manager Alfonzo Hall and public relations manager Curtis Williams. Promotions and events will be handled by Hussle Hard Entertainment, specifically, Deon Baptiste known as DJ Flux.
Unlike some other local bars, Club Zone owners said during interviews with a Connect Statesboro writer that they hope to appeal to a wide range of people, not just the college crowd.
"(It's) for the people who just want to come in and have a drink after work," said Williams. "Professors can go and have a drink, watch television ... that's our main goal, showing people a good time."
According to DJ Flux, the night spot would be completely unique in Statesboro, a big-city club with no violence tolerated.
"Zone is going to have dress codes [and] the best security that money can pay for," said Flux. "This is not another Legends."
Attempts were made to contact the ownership and management of Club Zone, however they were advised by their attorney not to talk to the Herald for this story.
Emily Haymans contributed to this report.