The Club strikes back 

After four months of relative anonymity, The Club at Firestone has pushed its way back onto the public dance floor with a lawsuit and a political-action plan aimed at reviving the late-night club scene downtown. And in hopes of competing for a piece of the business generated by activities supporting Gay Day at Walt Disney World, the club's owners on Jan. 12 will be asking Orlando City Council to grant them an exemption from the city's anti-rave ordinance allowing them to hold all-night parties during the first week in June.;;The suit filed on the last day of 1997 against the city of Orlando is designed to force the city to compensate the club's owners for an estimated 50 percent in revenues lost since the Sept. 8 vote by City Council to require all downtown clubs to close at 3 a.m, as well as convince an Orange County Circuit Court judge to declare the city ordinance illegal – permitting the resumption of raves at downtown clubs.;;In addition to the legal strategy, club owner Jon Marsa, with Jim Faherty of the Sapphire Supper Club, is attempting to organize the club-goers and downtown entertainment businesses into a political-action group designed to elect City Commissioners willing to overturn the ordinance.;;In the days following the Council vote, Marsa – whose club was the one most directly impacted by the 3 a.m. edict – had talked of direct, immediate retaliation. Lawsuits and political action were threatened, as well as creative strategies, such as serving a buffet to recast itself as an eatery rather than a bar.;;But none of these strategies was immediately executed. Instead Marsa remodeled the club, devoting a glass-enclosed upstairs area to an older, more laid-back clientele and appealed to the state liquor commission, while clubs outside the city limits offered late-night promotions catering to the club's once-loyal patrons. As months passed and profits dwindled, Marsa and his partners eventually decided to abandon the low profile – chosen largely for fear of alienating city leaders – due to problems making ends meet minus the late-night receipts.;;"It took that long to decide the right direction to go," says Marsa, acknowledging his club was hurting financially as a result of the late-night shutdown. "That can be very difficult, especially when you've just invested $300,000 (in the Glass Chamber remodel)." ;;It's too early to predict a landslide for the late-night lobby's candidates. But Marsa and Faherty are meeting to develop a political strategy and select candidates to back in the March 10 election. Voter registration forms are available at the clubs, as well as Downtown Records. With a month left to register in time to qualify to vote in the Council election, "People need to get going," Marsa says.;;Four candidates have filed to run for the District 5 seat left open by the retirement of Nap Ford, and District 1 Commissioner Don Ammerman also faces a challenger. Both Ammerman and Ford voted for the ordinance that killed late-night downtown.;;Meetings are planned with challengers for both seats. Noting traditionally low voter turnout in city elections, Marsa suggests the late-night lobby might throw the elections to their favorites. "We're going to be very politically active in the City Council elections," Marsa says. "Obviously they're interested in our votes." ;;Still organizing the late-night crowd or downtown club owners is hardly a sure thing, and Ammerman and Mercerdese Clark(who is not among those being courted by the late-night lobby) is a heavy favorite to replace Ford.;;Also unlikely is the prospect of Council granting an exemption for Gay Day festivities in early June. While clubs in downtown Orlando must close at 3 a.m., Downtown Disney and other attractions are exempted from the city and state anti-rave measures. Yet, despite the poor odds of success, the Club plans to ask for the special permission at the Jan. 12 meeting. ;;After months of indecision, the Club hired attorney David Wasserman to lead the legal battle against the city ordinance. Wasserman represented the adult clubs who won a court injunction allowing them to continue to do business in the early 1990s, despite prohibitions in a nudity ordinance passed by Orange County. ;;Like the nudity battle, the Club suit relies on constitutional protections for those engaged in creative expression and seeks an injunction allowing the business to continue to operate. ;;But in this case, the legal argument also involves Orlando's definition of businesses subject to closing. The city ordinance applies to those earning more from liquor than from sales of food and other beverages, while not considering other sources of income, such as cover charges – a key profit center at late-night events continuing after 3 a.m., when alcohol can't be served (The Club claims to earn more than 70 percent of its revenue from sources other than liquor sales). The state law refers only to those whose "principal business" is liquor sales. By "redefining state regulations of license holders," Orlando " exceeded its lawful authority," Wasserman says in the lawsuit.;;While city officials are confident its anti-rave ordinance will withstand the legal challenge, " We support the U.S. Constitution. We're sworn to do that," says Jim DeSimone, spokesman for Mayor Glenda Hood. Still, DeSimone also says City Council had legal authority to take the action in response to concerns about drug use at the late-night parties. Lawsuit or not, DeSimone says City Council will reconsider the ordinance in mid-year.;;After four months of waiting, Marsa is intent on a quicker resolution. "I don't think it's legal. I don't think it's right."

More by Lawrence Budd


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