Conflict in Clubland

Streets lined with rowdies, fistfights, gunshots, cops in ski masks. Is this what an entertainment district is supposed to look like?

This time around, rather than requesting records or registering voters, the owners went right to city hall and asked for an emergency meeting with Mayor Kasdin. As Woody Graber puts it: "It isn't an election year any more, and, boy, are we in trouble."

To Kasdin, the request came as no surprise. He says it reflects the Beach's new breed of entertainment impresarios. "There is a different kind of owner here now," he says. "These are not the wide-eyed people of the early years. These are number-crunching business people."

The owners of South Beach nightclubs are a mixed lot. Some have worked their way up from tending bar. Others, like Brier -- who, in addition to Groove Jet, owns three nightspots in the New York area -- come from a finance background. (Brier is a former investment banker with Tokai Bank in New York.) Richard Bronson, owner of the Shadow Lounge on Washington, made millions as a banker. Paul Yates, part owner of Salvation, is also a member of the three-man police commission in Atlanta. They run sophisticated operations with multiple dance spaces, floor shows, fashion nights, benefits for worthy causes. Their well-to-do clientele comes from around the world. There may still be some shady characters in the SoBe entertainment scene, but these particular proprietors are not underworld toughs.

And they can make lots of legitimate money. "You take a successful club on Washington Avenue, let's say the Living Room. They might gross four or five million dollars a year," says Kelsey. "A place like the Clevelander on Ocean Drive, it's much more than that." As owners are quick to note, much of this booty ends up back in the city coffers. In exchange for permission to open a club in the nation's hottest nightlife zone, owners must pay half a dozen different kinds of taxes: liquor tax, resort tax, sales tax, property tax, a special convention center tax, even a special one percent tax that helps fund the Loews convention hotel project. Part of the price of a daiquiri at Liquid may end up paying for schoolbooks at North Beach Elementary or landscaping at Flamingo Park. And the owners want the city bureaucracy to know it.

The meeting with Kasdin takes place in the mayor's meeting room at city hall April 21. The room is crowded with club owners and their attorneys, about 25 people in all. Kasdin, surrounded, tries to calm the waters. "This was not an exercise in tact," he admits, referring to the "no kitchen" code citations. "I want to allay any fears that there is an attitude on the part of the city toward the clubs."

The owners react with skepticism, grumbling, waving their code compliance tickets at the man they supported for mayor just months before. They complain to Kasdin that they have been targeted because they don't possess permits that specifically license nightclubs. But such permits do not exist in Miami Beach, at any price. All the owners have received receipts for their license fees that refer to their businesses as "restaurant (bar, lounge)," just like Amnesia. But they have never before been expected to serve meals. They insist they are being harassed. That is the only explanation.

Kasdin denies the accusations of harassment, but he does admit that some Miami Beach officials look on the club business with disdain. The owners press him for the identities of these enemies. They have been bandying about the names of Assistant City Manager Mayra Diaz Buttacavoli, and zoning and planning director Dean Grandin as possible initiators of the violations. "How did this happen?" demands Paul Yates of Salvation, waving his ticket. The mayor suggests that accusing specific officials will only create more problems and dodges the question.

The owners then make specific requests: They want Washington Avenue spruced up; dirty, broken sidewalks replaced; and trees planted. The cleanup, they argue, will attract a better crowd and deter rowdy kids. Kelsey suggests that the project might cost $400,000, a drop in the bucket compared to the revenues produced for the city by the nightclub industry. "The city blames the clubs for the atmosphere," he says, "but the fact is, it is [city officials] who have failed in their most basic duties -- to provide a clean and safe environment."

The owners want increased police presence on the streets, but not the sort that wears ski masks and handcuffs suspects in front of clubs. Most important, the owners want relief from code enforcers. Kasdin insists, again and again, that he is there to listen, not to act. All he can assure them is that they "won't be closed down overnight," something they already know because the law won't allow it. The owners troop out, unhappy with the mayor and everyone else in city hall.

At 4:30 the morning of April 21, Code Compliance inspectors had shown up at Liquid, according to Ian Macey. The 32-year-old club manager cut through the second-floor Washington Avenue club, its decor a stylized industrial motif of exposed pipes and ducts, all resounding with loud house music. He met inspectors on the sidewalk. "They asked me for permission to measure the dance floor," he says. "I didn't know why they wanted to do that, but it was 4:30 in the morning, and I told them, I'm sorry, but no, they couldn't do that. They should come back during day hours. Why are they doing that at that hour? There's no good reason for it."

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