VCU's proverbial big foot has stubbed a toe.
In the university's latest bid to clean up Grace and Broad streets north of the academic campus, its attempt to boot a hip-hop club at 534 N. Harrison St. has led to charges of racism and foul play.
University police says the nightspot, known simply as the 534 Club, is a haven for drugs, violence, underage drinking and public drunkenness, making the area around it unsafe for students. So VCU is supporting the revocation of the club's liquor license in a hearing before the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
"We are dealing with a very serious situation," says Paul Timmreck, senior vice president for finance and administration at VCU. "We are dealing with assaults, gun shots. … I can only call it 'bone chilling.'"
The club's owner, Nat Dance, says the university has ulterior motives. About 18 months ago, VCU attempted to gain control of his club through a real estate swap with the property owner, Thomas Leong. Shortly thereafter, Nance says, VCU Police began aggressively monitoring activities at and around the club.
"I'm going from a good businessman to Public Enemy No. 1," Dance says.
At a hearing earlier this month, VCU Police and ABC investigators outlined what they consider a dangerous pattern of violence and public drunkenness pouring into the street after the club closes at 2 a.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Fights and shootings regularly erupt outside the club, the officers testified. The club has become so unruly and notorious that the department summons all of its officers on duty to man the streets when the club closes, campus police contend.
Because of the amount of testimony and charges, the ABC hearing on Oct. 6 was continued before the defense had a chance to present its case. As of press time, a new date had not been set.
Dance, 38, says the club didn't become a target until after he resisted giving up his right to first refusal to purchase the property, an agreement he and the owner negotiated when he first opened the club 11 years ago. The owner asked him to sign the paperwork giving up his rights about 18 months ago, Nance says.
Timmreck says the university offered Leong one of its buildings, at 1315 Floyd Ave., in exchange for the 534 Club, which sits at the heart of an area earmarked for future development. But that deal fell through primarily because the property owner didn't want full responsibility for maintaining the Floyd Avenue building, Timmreck says, which houses administrative offices for the university.
"That's why the whole thing fell apart," he says. "There have been allegations about racism and that's just preposterous."
In fact, Timmreck says under the original terms of the swap, "Mr. Dance would retain all rights as a tenant to that property." The current issues related to patrons outside the club contributed to nixing the deal, Timmreck adds. So the swap agreement was terminated in August 2003.
Still, Dance says the university had it out for him. His mother, former Petersburg Mayor Rosalyn Dance, even met with VCU President Eugene P. Trani two weeks ago to talk things over. She and her son were scheduled to meet with Trani again this week.
Rosalyn Dance, who handles paperwork for her son's businesses, doesn't understand why VCU didn't contact them beforehand about the ruckus outside the club.
"If we are good neighbors and I have a problem, then I should tell you about it. You have a responsibility to do the right thing," the former mayor says. "All of a sudden we've become this terrible place that is a threat to public safety." (Rosalyn and her son also own and operate the upscale Manhattan's restaurant on Fifth Street, which opened last year.)
Chief Fuller says that while his predecessor approached Nat Dance on several occasions about issues related to the club, he himself had not. Fuller took over as chief in December of 2000. "I didn't feel any obligation to go talk to the individual," Fuller says, explaining that Nat Dance has a history of resisting the department's overtures.
Dance says that isn't true. VCU simply wants him out.
"They want this property for a reason," he says. "I have no choice but to fight now." — Scott Bass
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