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Clubbing the Club



The Orlando City Council remained divided Monday in passing the city's anti-rave ordinance by a 5-2 vote.

But the members were able to agree on the ultimate result of the law, which will force all downtown bars to close their doors at 3 a.m.: The city's drug problem will be undeterred by the action, the result of seven months' work by the council, city staff, and a citizen task force assigned to study drug use at clubs holding the late-night parties.

Commissioner Ernest Page probably said it best when he dismissed the ordinance as "symbolic, rather than realistic." Even Mayor Glenda Hood, the leader of the victorious anti-rave side, finally admitted as much, suggesting to the standing-room-only audience that filled the council's chambers at City Hall, "As we leave here, we know we have a big job ahead of us as far as the drug problem."

What will be affected when the ordinance takes effect in 10 days is the operation of The Club at Firestone, the only club regularly catering to the late-night electronica dance crowd, known by law enforcement and politicians as ravers. The combination of the local ordinance and the four-month-old state anti-rave law leaves The Club with no choice but to alter its operations.

Among the options being contemplated more or less seriously by the owners: initiating a late-night buffet, and thereby sidestepping state law that differentiates between bars and bar/restaurants; setting aside the liquor license and continuing to cater to a late-night crowd more likely to swallow a tab of Ecstacy than toss down a shot of tequila; and a "double-barreled" legal assault on both the local ordinance and state law, including a court injunction giving The Club the right to remain operating until a judge's ruling.

"There's so many loopholes," owner Jon Marsa said, when asked about his plans for developing a buffet menu. "How adversarially would the city react if we were to use them? I would anticipate the worst if we would do that."

Yet even while weighing the implications of the city ordinance, Marsa and The Club also were busy in the past week distancing themselves from the perceived evils of rave culture.

Since the Zen Festival on Aug. 31 in Polk County, a slew of media reports have linked that culture with the apparent drug overdose death of a 21-year-old man, who died hours after leaving the festival. And festival promoter Bevin O'Neil, who recently told Orlando Weekly he was a co-owner of The Club, was charged with felony drug possession on festival grounds the day before the show.

At a Sept. 5 news conference convened on The Club's patio, The Club's attorney explained that the festival was 100 miles away and the drug death could not have been prevented by Orlando's ordinance. Asked to clarify the legal connection between The Club and the festival, attorney David Wasserman portrayed them as "apples and oranges." This, despite the fact that a festival brochure named The Club as a sponsor and Marsa as the event's legal adviser, while Wasserman's office did research aimed at stopping Polk County from using a new curfew ordinance to foil the festival.

According to Polk County Sheriff's Department records, O'Neil was charged on Aug. 30 at the fairgrounds with possession of Ecstacy, an amphetamine. "During the arrest (O'Neil) attempted to conceal a small white substance by dropping it in a golf cart," according to the arrest report. "(O'Neil) stated that the substance exactly is what he had and it was for personal use and he believed it fell out of his wallet." While indicating he also was cited for driving with a suspended license, the report fails to establish any "probable cause" for the stop.

O'Neil could not be reached for comment. But Wasserman pointed the finger at Polk County authorities, rather than O'Neil. "He's guilty of being very naive in dealing with Polk County." (The sheriff's department was paid $30,000 by promoters to provide security, which included about 100 deputies, a helicopter and other special equipment.) "They pulled him over because they were pulling over anyone they could to make the event look bad."

Meanwhile, on Sept. 9, an official in the Orlando office of the state Division of Alcohol, Beverage and Tobacco, which regulates businesses with liquor licenses, indicated The Club was under investigation. After insisting that any new probe -- like six previous ones -- would end without any illegal activity detected, Marsa called back to say that his attorney had been assured there was no investigation. Called about this apparent contradiction, the managing agent of the state office would say only that he was barred from discussing pending cases and, "If there was an active investigation, I couldn't tell you."

Even as the pressure mounts on all sides, The Club seems to thrive. While reporters gathered outside for the press conference, welders inside were throwing sparks from ironwork supporting a $200,000 second-floor addition. That means that while the late-night scene and drug use both are expected to continue, for politicians and law enforcement who seem intent on targeting the venue, the fight will continue as well.

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