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Thursday, July 29, 2004 03:08 am


Another Springfield area teen hangout bites the dust


Springfield teens are a nomadic lot, though not by choice. It seems that each time they settle into a new funky abode, where they're free to let their fraying jeans hang low and spike their hair to the high heavens, some outside force comes along to shoo them away.

Jerry Roof, a 17-year-old senior at Glenwood High School in Chatham, used to frequent the Asylum, a hip coffeehouse and occasional live music venue of overstuffed couches and lava lamps located just south of the old Wabash Avenue curve.

"The Asylum was the spot to hang in Springfield," Roof says.

Then, in late 2001, city bulldozers leveled the popular teen haunt in order to extend the Stanford Avenue overpass.

That's when Illiopolis native Justin Ford saw an opening.

In May 2002 Ford filled the void left by the Asylum by launching a new teen hangout called Club 10. Ford leased space on Friday and Saturday nights from USA Sports Center at 1200 N. Bradfordton Rd. and invited teens out to spin records and dance.

But Club 10 was slow to catch on, so Ford pulled the plug on the place for a few months. He realized that since the Asylum's demise there was virtually no other venue in Springfield in which teens could hear live music. And, he says, many fledgling bands were left with no place to rock.

Doug Dennis, owner of USA Sports Center, quickly embraced Ford's idea of hosting live music on weekends.

Dennis says he always wanted to run an alcohol-free teen center, and would open his building on weekends for kids to shoot basketball in the gymnasium and play video games and billiards.

"I remember my dad saying, 'If you're going to play your electric guitar find somewhere else to play it,'" says Dennis, 53, who teaches karate at the site and works full-time as a home builder. "We thought this could be that place for kids today."

So Ford took out a loan and bought several thousand dollars' worth of sound and lighting equipment. By the fall of 2003, he began booking bands from the area.

Word spread fast, and it wasn't long before Club 10 was packing in youngsters from cities and towns across Illinois.

Ford lured bands from nearby St. Louis and from as far away as California to entertain a mostly teenage crowd that at times exceeded 200.

"Once word got around that there was an all-ages club for local bands and touring bands, the place just took off," says Ford, 26, who works full-time driving a truck route in Springfield for Capital City Vending. "There's a huge need for a place like this."

In just a few months, Club 10 became the new spot to hang in Springfield.

Though not for long.

Club 10 operated illegally from the moment its doors opened. The property Ford leased never had zoning approval to house a music venue.

Randy Armstrong, zoning and building administrator for Sangamon County, says he "wasn't even aware the club was in existence" until an anonymous complaint was filed with his office six months ago.

The complainant warned that on weekends the club's parking lot was filled beyond capacity and that cars were parked illegally along Bradfordton Road, a fast-moving, unlit, mostly rural thoroughfare west of Veterans Parkway.

"We're surprised there hasn't already been an accident," says Lois Irwin, who lives adjacent to the club. "Bradfordton Road is dangerous at any time of day, let alone at night."

In an attempt to keep the music playing, Dennis and Ford began a months-long series of meetings with Sangamon County officials.

The two men believed they could come to some agreement; Dennis had already been granted several zoning changes to his property since purchasing it in 1993.

The 1.66 acres of land was an overgrown wheat field when Dennis acquired it. The property remains zoned for agricultural use, though it has since been developed into a 13,500-square-foot structure with large asphalt parking lots in the front and back.

On three separate occasions during the 1990s, Dennis received zoning variances to build on the site, which now includes a karate club, health club, and gymnasium.

Dennis and Ford thought their problems were solved when the county's Zoning Board of Appeals in March recommended that the property be rezoned to allow Club 10.

As the land was no longer used for agricultural purposes, Dennis sought to rezone the property to a neighborhood business district, a B-1 classification, and requested conditional permitted use for a community teen center.

But in April the Sangamon County Board shot down the recommendation after several neighboring residents testified that the club was a nuisance and enabled underage drinking.

A week later Dennis sought a specific zoning variance that would allow the club to operate, without rezoning of the land. But this request just seemed to frustrate County Board members, some of whom now felt that Dennis had intentionally tried to deceive them.

These members rejected Dennis' claims that he did not know he was allowing the club to operate illegally and argued that Club 10 wasn't a "teen center," as advertised, but an all-ages venue that mixed young teens with twentysomethings.

"There are quite a few board members who feel that Mr. Dennis has stretched the facts," says Andy Van Meter, who chairs the county board.

"He's not been telling the whole truth," says Dale Vaughn, a county board member since 1990. "If he can't learn after going before the zoning board seven times, he must be a slow learner."

Although Dennis has feuded with several of his immediate neighbors for years, the opening of Club 10 provoked nearby homeowners and businessmen to new levels of outrage.

Cecelia Nickelson opposed Dennis' development plans when he first moved onto the property adjacent to hers a decade ago. Back then she worried about additional street traffic; now, she says, the noise from Club 10 shakes the walls of the home where she has lived for 40 years.

"The music at times just vibrates our house, making it impossible to sleep," she says.

Dennis contends that the club is "virtually soundproof" with eight-inch insulated walls.

Jeanna Fuhrmann, president of a civil-engineering firm located to the south of the club, blames Dennis for not supervising his parking lot during Club 10 events.

In written testimony to the Sangamon County Board, Fuhrmann claimed that her property had been burglarized and vandalized by "young men that have been seen drinking beer and smoking marijuana during after hour parties next door."

Dennis contends that no arrests have been made on his property.

According to Tony Sacco, chief deputy at the county sheriff's office, there were a total of 13 calls for service at the property so far this year.

But most of those calls were requests for deputies to respond to faulty burglar alarms and only two police reports were filed during weekends when Club 10 operates: One was for parking violations, and the other was for a hit-and-run accident that occurred on the lot.

Although many of his surrounding neighbors oppose the club, Dennis singles out Ed and Donna Fraase, who live directly behind his property, as the sharpest thorn in his side.

The Fraases have been quarreling with Dennis for years. They even filed a lawsuit against Dennis in 1998 for trespassing and cutting down trees on their property during construction of his gymnasium. The dispute was later settled out of court.

Last month the Fraases filed written complaints with the County Board alleging that they, too, had witnessed underage drinking in the parking lot and stressing that it was "only a matter of time before someone gets hurt during one of these events."

Dennis now complains that Tom Fraase, a County Board member who is Ed Fraase's brother, should have been barred from voting on the zoning variance because of a conflict of interest.

"We weren't denied anything until Tom Fraase got on the County Board," says Dennis.

But Tom Fraase rejects the notion that he influenced fellow board members to vote against the club. "This is not a personal issue," he says. "Mr. Dennis is very familiar with the zoning process, and he knows he's wrong."

The matter came to a head on July 13, when the Sangamon County Board engaged in a contentious hour-long debate over whether to grant the necessary zoning variance that would let Club 10 stay open.

Dennis arrived with petitions bearing 200 names of parents and patrons who support the club. He said he fixed the parking problems by erecting signs along the edges of his property, and he reaffirmed his commitment to oversee a safe, alcohol-free club for teens.

"The issue is about the needs of young people," Dennis testified. "We've addressed every issue and we'll continue to do that for the safety and opportunities of these kids."

But County Board members came out swinging, reciting a litany of complaints made by Dennis' neighbors that included underage drinking, loud music, and trespassing.

Board member Sam Montalbano grilled both Dennis and Ford about the "punk bands" who use "bad language" and "get out of control the way they sing."

Board member Sarah Moore joined Montalbano in saying Club 10 was not a "teen center" because it admitted people of all ages.

"Obviously there is a drug-and-alcohol problem," said Moore. "That's what we're trying to discourage here. The 21-year-olds will come in. Do you not think they will bring drugs and alcohol on the premises and try to sell it to underage kids?"

Dennis replied that he did not and scoffed at the idea of restricting the club to teens because, he said, parents often accompany their children to hear them play music.

But even the handful of board members who came to Dennis' defense seemed to sense early on that Club 10 was a lost cause. "I think this has probably been one of the most painful discussions I've been involved with in the four years that I've been here," said board member Doris Turner.

Board member Tim Griffin, who also supported keeping the club open, said after the meeting that he opposed the line of questioning regarding the types of music played there.

"I'm against the County Board trying to legislate what kind of music kids can and can't listen to," said Griffin.

Toward the end of the meeting Dennis made an impassioned plea to the board.

"I can't swear that somebody doesn't sneak out while I'm in there and drink in the back," said Dennis. "But we have monitors walking the parking lot. We have lights on in the back of the building.

"I can't wave a magic wand and make all those problems go away, I just can't," he continued, "so we're doing everything we can that we feel is reasonably possible without searching everybody."

But to no avail. The board dealt Dennis, Ford, and a host of local teenagers a crushing blow: The variance was overwhelmingly denied by a 20-5 vote and Club 10 was given 30 days -- until Aug. 12 -- to cease operation.

Dennis, who is considering filing a lawsuit against the board, later said he "felt ambushed" at the meeting and faulted its members for making their decision on the basis of "innuendo and hearsay" from neighbors, rather than visiting Club 10 themselves.

"They portray us as a den of evil, a sin pit out here," he says. "I could understand if I wanted to operate a strip club or an adult bookstore. But a gymnasium? A teen center?"

The County Board's decision has far-reaching consequences for Dennis' business that go beyond the imminent closure of Club 10.

Because Dennis lacks the proper zoning, he must now quit renting out space for special events such as parties, tournaments, and fundraisers, which, he says, account for as much as 15 percent of his total income.

A monthly wrestling show, such as the one that attracted some 300 people to the center last Saturday night, must also disband.

"This decision could put the entire facility out of business," Dennis says.

Last Friday night some 50 people, mostly in their late teens and early twenties attended what will likely be among the final concerts held at Club 10.

Hours before the event, owner Ford -- who has already begun looking for a new building to house Club 10 -- said he anticipated a "rowdy mosh pit that could get pretty serious." But there was no moshing, no stage-diving. There was hardly any dancing at all.

The atmosphere was strangely somber.The crowd caught wind that Club 10's days were numbered, and many appeared despondent about it.

"So they're closing this place down," said the lead singer/screamer of a punk band called New Society of Anarchists, attempting to rile the listless audience. "You should be slamming around in here instead of just letting it go to waste."

Outside, the screeching guitars and pounding drums filled the night air, particularly when a side door to the building was left open. Some kids sat in their cars with their radios blaring.

Disapproving neighbors sat on their front porches with their outside lights on. At least one neighbor shined a video camera on the club in the hopes of catching illegal activity on film.

In the parking lot, a group of local teens sat on the curb, their knees folded to their chests. "It's a shame," said 19-year-old Dustin Eskew, shaking his head. "This is the only place around for us to go."

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