Power Brokered

Ex-county chief gets Costa Mesa nightclub approved

Photo by Jeanne RiceErnie Schneider looks like a high-powered lobbyist delivered by central casting, what with his power suits, Gordon Gekko-esque slicked-back hair and knack for whispering conspiratorially in clients' ears during public meetings.

Orange County's chief administrative officer before the embarrassing bankruptcy of the mid-1990s, Schneider now makes his bread with Irvine-based Hunsaker and Associates, where he guides real-estate developers and other businesses toward precious municipal and county approval of mega-developments.

So what is this consigliere doing advising something as low-rent as a nightclub?

That question might have passed through the mind of entrepreneur James Raven when he contracted for Schneider's services earlier this year. But Raven realized he had to do something dramatic after he first broached the idea of opening a new nightclub in Costa Mesa, where none had been approved by the city for eight years.

When Raven first proposed his club Vegas, one city planner told the 34-year-old—in stern but cool plannerese—that "this use is going to be difficult." That was followed by the Costa Mesa Police Department expressing deep concerns, then the apparent death blow: the Planning Department recommended the Planning Commission reject the proposal. Planning commissions rarely ignore their professional staff's advice.

But if Raven was sweating when the Costa Mesa Planning Commission meeting of Nov. 25 was called to order, he didn't show it. Sure enough, under Schneider's watchful eyes, the panel, whose members are handpicked by the elected City Council, voted to approve Vegas, 4-1.

If a simple approval wasn't enough, commissioners cast the nightclub as a chance to add some truth to the advertising of the city's slogan "City of the Arts"—something the city was equally willing to ditch several years ago when it ended its yearly recognition of the "Day Without Art" AIDS-awareness festival.

"We need something to revitalize the city," said Commissioner Bill Perkins. "We need a nightlife."

"We need to provide a diversity of venues," concurred Commission Chairwoman Katrina Foley. "We need to provide culture and community, and we need to make sure it's not just on one side of town"—a reference to Costa Mesa's theaters, concert halls and museums in the South Coast Metro area.

Clubland diversity once flourished in Costa Mesa. In the early 1990s, more than six nightclubs did business. Today, only one survives, the Shark Club. Most notably, NYC and Empire Ballroom closed under a hail of complaints from police and residents. Once these nightclubs were shuttered, their conditional-use permits did not roll over to the next tenants of the nightclub buildings. The scene began dying through attrition.

But with the change of the former headbanger hangout Club Mesa to the more upscale Detroit bar last year, followed shortly thereafter by the opening of Jack Flynn's Kitsch Bar and the success of restaurants catering to monied hipsters at the Lab and Camp shopping centers, City Hall can't help but take notice.

Chris Fahey, who books shows at Detroit, thought Raven made a wise choice in choosing his location. "Costa Mesa and Santa Ana are his best chances," Fahey said. "They're the only cities giving nightclubs a fair hearing."

Raven credited Schneider for getting that fair hearing. "If you want to win, hire him," Raven said. "It doesn't matter how much he costs."

He didn't reveal how much the consigliere's services cost, but he did say that Vegas—which should open its doors by March 2003—will probably be worth more than $2.5 million when it's completed in the grand mission-style building at the corner of 19th Street and Newport Boulevard.

Raven's plans are ambitious. The building's empty basement—formerly a section of the elegant headquarters of a casualty of the disastrous, Reagan-era savings and loan crisis—will be transformed into a 11,300-square-foot venue themed after the Las Vegas of Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack glory days.

The main bar should measure a giant 80 feet. Hedging it will be a blue-tiled, kidney-shaped dance floor. DJs will play house, jazz and even some classic disco. Adjacent will be a wine bar, an outside patio and a restaurant serving a menu of French fusion cuisine. Warren Gnas, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, will run the kitchen.

Raven hopes to attract a well-heeled, coastal Orange County crowd that ranges in age from 25 to 45, very much like the folks who once patronized his clubs Atlantis between 1993 and 1996 and Tsunami at Aysia 101, where he was the vice president of entertainment in 1999.

Because the appeal period passed without anyone challenging the condtional-use application, it's officially a done deal. All that's left now is construction. Raven probably won't need Schneider's help with that.

 
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