Safety Dance 

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Less than two years before the recent flare-up of violence that city police link to the Cotton Club downtown, the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office was pushing a deal that would have made the club more difficult to monitor.

Prosecutors were willing to lift restrictions on the number of patrons allowed inside the club -- which caters to a hip-hop clientele and doubles as Manhattans Restaurant and, more recently, Paradise Lounge — as well as the 12-month probation period for receiving a liquor license.

The deal was based on one condition: Club and restaurant owner Nat Dance would have to relinquish his liquor license for another venue he owned, Club 534, a real-estate target of Virginia Commonwealth University.

The proposal is raising eyebrows for its unconventional approach to prosecuting threats to public safety. Why should government officials lift restrictions on a more dangerous club in order to eliminate a less-dangerous one?

The proposed plea deal in July 2006, recently uncovered by Style Weekly, states the "Commonwealth is willing to delete the restriction of three-hundred patrons at the Cotton Club and Manhattans on the further condition that Mr. Dance surrender his liquor license at Club 534 as revoked. Additionally, the ABC has represented that it would not apply any adverse taint to Manhattans or Cotton Club on the basis of the surrender at Club 534."

The language in the plea deal doesn't pass the smell test, says David Hicks, a former Richmond commonwealth's attorney who retired in 2005. When prosecutors "start relating things or places that are unrelated, it smells of undue power," Hicks says, "and that should make people uncomfortable. And that is something the government should justify."

Indeed, city police recently have made attempts to justify closing the Cotton Club. After two shooting incidents in mid-January that police say started with arguments inside the club on Fifth Street, city prosecutors petitioned Richmond Circuit Court for an injunction to shut down the venue and elicit a Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control investigation. City police say the club is a public nuisance, and has been for some time.

A Richmond Circuit Court judge, however, denied the injunction.

The problems at the Cotton Club aren't exactly new. At the time of the proposed plea deal in 2006, the club already had earned a reputation as a hot spot that required routine police inspection.

Police records show officers responded to 16 incidents at or near the Cotton Club and Manhattans from July 2005 to June 2006, says Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Tracy Thorne-Begland, who negotiated the plea proposal.

The Cotton Club was following a familiar pattern, say police. In 2004, VCU petitioned the ABC to revoke Dance's liquor license at Club 534, citing a "bone-chilling" pattern of assaults, gunplay and public drunkenness after the club closed at 2 a.m.

The ABC rejected that appeal, however, because investigators couldn't establish a direct link between the violence on the streets and club patrons.

By the summer of 2005, however, Club 534 was falling off the radar. From July 2005 to June 2006, police records show officers responded to only three incidents at the Harrison Street nightspot.

"He kind of cleaned up his act at 534 and things kind of festered a bit at the Manhattan and Cotton Club," says Thorne-Begland. "He basically moved the nuisance to Cotton Club and Manhattans."

Dance, however, says he can think of another reason why the city was so focused on shutting down his venue. VCU wanted the property, he says.

"It's kind of funny," Dance says. "I'm the last thing standing. If you go by there and look at those four major corners with the parking deck that takes up the whole corner, the dorms, the VCU Siegel Center. And then we're sitting here, last, except for Ukrop's."

Indeed, four years ago, VCU began making overtures to the building's previous owner about purchasing 534. But Dance won out. Because his lease gave him first right of refusal, Dance was allowed to buy the building as long as he matched VCU's offer. Pamela Lepley, a spokeswoman at VCU, says the university placed an official bid on the property in the summer of 2007 — one year after the commonwealth's attorney's proposed plea agreement.

"Mr. Dance did not own the property at the time when we made an offer to buy to property," Lepley says. "An official offer wasn't made until 2007 and that's when Dance bought it." Dance says he purchased the property for $530,000. The property is assessed by the city at $424,000.

Lepley says VCU has a master plan for the area that encompasses Club 534, but actual development is 20 to 30 years away. "We have no plans for that property," she says of the club.

VCU's interest in purchasing the property and the city's attempt to negotiate the closure of the Club 534 even after problems had been "cleaned up" are enough to make one wonder if the city's doing someone else's bidding.

"I have no problem with agendas," Hicks says. "I have problems with hidden agendas. Apply the law equally."

Local defense attorney Steven Benjamin says the plea agreement to revoke the liquor license at a club that no longer has public-safety concerns is contradictory.

"If these restrictions were made in good judgment … for the safety of the people," Benjamin says, "the commonwealth's willingness to waive these restrictions doesn't make sense."

He says when local officials discuss closing down one club and keeping the problematic club open, it only aggravates the situation. "It looks like they're setting him up to fail," Benjamin says.

For now, it appears Dance gets a temporary reprieve at the Cotton Club. Since the judge denied a motion for injunction filed by Richmond Police Jan. 31, the ABC isn't obligated to investigate Dance's establishment for liquor violations.

However, Becky Gettings, spokeswoman for the ABC, says the department is still looking at Dance's clubs.

"Even though the injunction was not granted," she says, "we are continuing our investigation." S



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