By ANDREW DOUGLAS
It's not every day, in these tough economic times, that investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to open a new restaurant in a new building ignites outrage and uproar. However, when the person opening the business is well known as an owner and operator of strip clubs, then there might be reason to rant.
Germantown Parkway in Cordova has become a hub of all kinds of businesses - from big-box outlets to strip malls, quick-loan stores and nearly every chain restaurant that comes to mind. So when Steve Cooper, the man behind the Gold Club and Christie's Cabaret (he runs them and other adult clubs out of state), says he's building a "fine dining" establishment that will be a dance club at night, people in Cordova didn't just oppose it, they screamed foul.
In a telephone interview last week, Cooper attempted to deflect skepticism about his new restaurant/club venture, ne "La Italiano" but now called "Ocean Club. The club, to be located on Fischer Steel Road near Germantown Parkway, has been in the works for months and has been embroiled in controversy for most of that time. "It was never intended to be a strip club," contends Cooper. " We're in the process of hiring a chef right now."
The two-story building with no windows and 14,000 square feet is near completion. It is an impressive structure both externally and from a view of the interior, granted last week by Cooper's project supervisor, Dave Rogers.
Rogers pointed out various features. "The main bar will be here, an oyster bar over there," indicated the supervisor, who lives in Phoenix but has been in and out of Memphis watching the building take shape from the ground up. Of a large floor expanse, Rogers said, "The area will be covered with tables and chairs for fine dining. Right around 9 p.m. they'll clear that out so couples can dance. Rest assured it will not be a strip club."
There are several residential neighborhoods, a sports complex and a church surrounding the area. A group of Cordova activists aren't buying the fish story. They insist Steve Cooper can't be trusted and they need proof.
"It's one thing to go and tell the media," says Brian Stephens of the Cordova Leadership Council. "It's another thing to go and put it on a government document that says what you plan for it and to lock it in for eternity."
Cordova isn't the first community with critics looking askance an adult business owner trying to play it straight. Years ago when I worked as a reporter in Dayton, Ohio, a similar situation ended with the community's worst-case scenario.
In Harrison Township community leaders were skeptical when a new business owner built in their neighborhood. The owner opened the building that made people take notice. It had no windows and a dance stage. It opened as a Greek restaurant with ethnic food and Greek entertainment. It closed nine months later and was sold to a strip club owner, who reopened it as an adult nightclub. All of this happened in less than one year.
"I'm very hesitant and very reserved to believe anything that comes out of these operators' mouths," says Stephens.
Cooper says his building doesn't have windows because of an "unattractive" cement plant near the building. He says he recently invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to expand the kitchen and cooking areas to create what he maintains would be one of the largest restaurant kitchens in Cordova.
When I asked project supervisor Rogers about the unexpected change from what had long been ballyhooed as an Italian eatery-to-be named "La Italiano" (a sign bearing that name was still out front last week) to "Ocean Club," a fresh-seafood, steak restaurant and dance club, he told me the area is saturated with Italian restaurants and that he and Cooper had decided on something "unique" to the area.
Unique or not, Stephens' group of activists want a planned-development proposal in writing - one which would detail Cooper's plans. Right now Ocean Club stands within 1500 feet of a church; so by law it can't be an adult business. But in Memphis, Stephens notes, churches are as mobile as commercial businesses and can move locations overnight. That's why his group is pushing to rezone the area from industrial to commercial. That way, church or no church, it could never be an adult business.
Regardless of zoning laws or documents, community activists and city leaders insist they'll be watching with a skeptical eye. "If they try anything otherwise, we'll come down hard on him," says Memphis city council member Bill Boyd, who represents the district where the renamed Ocean Club plans to open.
Andrew Douglas, recent winner of a Green Eyeshade Award, got the first look at Steve Cooper's "Ocean Club." This article is an elaboration of a report he did for WMC-TV, Action News 5.