On August 4, a Thursday, the Liquor Control Board of Review held a hearing that lasted nine hours. The parade of witnesses tested the stamina of the court reporter. Late in the afternoon, she used lulls in the testimony to stretch and to shake the tension out of her arms and hands.
The daylong hearing was dedicated to the liquor license of Xpressions, a nightclub on the north end of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Xpressions is the third establishment to operate at 220 Admiral Boulevard. The previous iterations — clubs named NV and NRG — were notorious for shootings, fights and other assorted mayhem.
The owner of the building, a man named Del Hedgepath, ran NV and NRG. Under pressure from the city's Regulated Industries Division, he sold the ground-floor bar to a young couple with more enthusiasm than experience. When the business opened as Xpressions in late December, the calls for squad cars and ambulances resumed. "This club is one that we go to pretty much all the time," a Kansas City police sergeant testified at the August 4 hearing.
Eric and Natasha Union, the couple who bought the club from Hedgepath, were notified in March that Xpressions had flunked its probationary period. The notice arrived shortly after a 19-year-old man was shot and killed in a parking lot several blocks from the club. A city official would later describe the homicide as having been "initiated" at Xpressions.
Carol Coe, a former councilwoman advising the Unions, acknowledges that NV and NRG were scourges. "The police have been tortured by that Del Hedgepath," she tells The Pitch.
The Unions say they are being unfairly made to answer for the destructive and unlawful activity that took place when the business was in Hedgepath's name. At the hearing, they described the measures that they had taken to monitor and shape the behavior inside, and in the immediate vicinity of, Xpressions. The club, for instance, began admitting only those 25 and older on Saturday nights. Eric Union said he doesn't play "hood stuff" when he takes a turn in the DJ booth.
But no amount of slow jams will appease those who own property and rent apartments near Admiral and McGee. Weary from their battles with Hedgepath, the neighbors did not welcome the arrival of another establishment with a vowel-deprived name. In their minds, the location continues to be synonymous with noise, vomit and the occasional spray of gunfire. "I would never advise anyone to live where I live," a young father of two, who lives near the club, said at the liquor board hearing.
In a way, it was fitting that the hearing turned into a nine-hour, no-break-for-lunch grind. The city's effort to regulate the flow of alcohol at 220 Admiral has been full of complications. Elected officials have gotten involved. A lawsuit was filed. An R. Kelly appearance in Kansas City has even figured into the narrative.
Velvet ropes were set up outside the club last weekend. But the party may finally be coming to an end.
In 1997, The Kansas City Star featured Del Hedgepath in a story about "ordinary" millionaires. The story described how Hedgepath mowed his own yard and paid $9 for haircuts, in spite of his $1 million net worth.
Hedgepath, a self-taught businessman, whose formal education topped out with some coursework at Johnson County Community College, began buying real estate when he was in his early 20s. His first purchase, according to the Star article, was a house in McLouth, Kansas, his hometown.
Now 47, Hedgepath bought the three-story brick building at 220 Admiral in 2003. He converted the upper two floors into apartments. (The Buick Lofts, as they're known, pay homage to the building's past life as a car dealership.) He transformed the first floor into a club that he called NV.
NV had a lot going for it: central location, a large floor plan, a patio deck and a well-capitalized owner. In 2008, The Pitch sponsored a DJ contest at the club. Eventually, though, NV became associated with violence and other misbehavior.
In May 2009, the city suspended NV's liquor license for 60 days. The suspension was handed down a few weeks after an incident outside the club that left four people with gunshot wounds. On a different night, a female bartender whacked a bottle of Grey Goose against a patron's head. Gary Majors, the manager of Regulated Industries, once told The Pitch that police officers used to see the club's bouncers get involved in melees that the bouncers would deny happened when police asked about them.
Hedgepath used the suspension as an opportunity to rebrand the business. The club reopened in October as NRG. A couple of new consonants did not alleviate the problems. In December 2009, a woman told police that two NRG employees had taken her to an apartment and raped her after a cocaine-dusted after-party at the club. Last year, the owner of a record label accused Hedgepath of slapping him in the face and then ducking behind a bouncer. A few weeks after that incident, a man who left NRG at 2:30 a.m. was shot in the buttocks.
The club demanded a lot of police attention. Patrol cars responded to more than 100 disturbances in the first nine months of 2010. In addition to shootings and fights in the street, the cruising along Admiral Boulevard caused traffic headaches and left nearby residents cursing the invention of the subwoofer.
Hedgepath's days as a middle-aged clubland prince were numbered. His attorney suggested selling the club in lieu of a liquor-license revocation. The plan was for Hedgepath to run the club until he found a buyer. But after a weekend last September, during which the streets around Xpressions were misty with pepper spray, the city encouraged Hedgepath to shut it down.
The liquor-board hearing was held in a community center on Kansas City's East Side.
Eric and Natasha Union, dressed in formal business attire, formed a prayer circle with their employees and other supporters before they entered the building.
The Unions are in their 20s. She works at Quintiles in clinical treatment. He's an events promoter. They incorporated Unique Entertainment, the business that bought the bar from Hedgepath, last August.
Tables for the key participants had been arranged on the stage of the Robert J. Mohart Multipurpose Center. As Mary Jane Judy, vice chairwoman of the liquor board, laid out some ground rules, Hedgepath entered the auditorium and took a seat toward the back of the room.
Beth Murano, an assistant city attorney, presented the case for revoking the liquor license. Her first witness was Majors, a former police major who moved over to Regulated Industries in 2007.
Majors said he met with the Unions last November to talk about their foray into barkeeping. The meeting took place in his office in the Century Towers building. Majors, who testified that he had concerns about the Unions' inexperience, said he gave the couple tips on crowd control. He said he told the Unions that the nightspot's history of violence could not continue.
New Year's weekend did not cure Majors of his ambivalence. Off-duty deputies had been hired from the Jackson County Sheriff's Office to provide security in the immediate area around the nightclub. But the deputies felt undermanned when a fight broke out at Admiral and Grand on January 1. Shots were fired in a nearby parking lot. When the gun smoke cleared, officials in the Sheriff's Office decided that deputies would no longer work special duty at Xpressions.
A private security company, KC Patrol and Protection, replaced the off-duty deputies. This arrangement lasted three months. Scott Dennis, a KC Patrol officer, testified at the hearing that fights were common inside the club on Friday and Saturday nights. Dennis said an Xpressions bouncer named Josh liked to take unruly patrons by the throat when he escorted them out of the building. The bouncer's manner was so agressive, Dennis said, that he and his co-workers worried that a roughly treated patron might retaliate and they would get caught in the crossfire. Dennis said he tried to advise Josh: "If nothing else, go home and watch the movie Road House."
The club, meanwhile, continued to require police intervention. Xpressions produced 25 disturbance calls in the first six months of this year, according to Deborah Randol, a Kansas City police sergeant who testified at the hearing.
Randol said Xpressions has occupied her and her officers' time like no other establishment in her patrol area. On February 12, Randol arrested a woman who became belligerent at the club. The following night, an intoxicated man who had left the club started fighting with police after being told not to loiter in the middle of the street.
On March 20, a boyfriend-girlfriend situation, which had originated at the club, ended in bloodshed. Police say Kendrick Anderson, 21, got in his car and followed two men men he saw talking to his significant other outside Xpressions at closing time. An occupant in Anderson's car shot at Stephen Lee Anthony Jackson's car when the vehicles reached Eighth Street and Charlotte. Jackson died at the scene. His passenger was taken to the hospital with critical injuries. Prosecutors charged Anderson with second-degree murder.
After the drive-by, Majors, who had met with the Unions again in late January, this time to talk about the club's rocky relaunch, was ready to pull the plug. He notified the Unions that they had violated the terms of their probation.
For Majors, probation was a relatively new tool. In 2009, the City Council passed an ordinance that placed all new liquor licensees under a six-month probationary period. The ordinance stipulates that bars failing to prevent or suppress disorder (or committing other violations of the liquor code) must get the consent of their neighbors to continue serving drinks.
Once notified of the probation violation, the Unions hired a public-relations professional, Carrie Stapleton. But no communications specialist could salvage the venue's relationship with its neighbors. One neighboring property owner was so determined to see Xpressions close that he called the club's liquor distributors and gave them a hard time.
Neighborhood consent was a lost cause. So the Unions explored other options.
In early May, their attorney, Gregory Vleisides, filed a lawsuit against Majors in an effort to keep Xpressions operating without city interference. The suit alleged that the Unions, who are black, were victims of racial discrimination. The suit noted that Hedgepath, who is white, had drawn fines and suspensions. The Unions, meanwhile, faced the regulatory equivalent of the death penalty.
In its answer to the suit, the city denied that the Unions were targets of discrimination. The point became moot when a judge ruled that Xpressions' license was not in imminent danger, and the suit was dismissed.
The courthouse was but one path. With the revocation hearing looming, the Unions also tested a political solution.
On May 27, Councilman Jermaine Reed wrote a letter informing Majors that he had taken an interest in the case. In the letter, Reed described his positive feelings about the Unions and the club. "I was impressed with the entertainment venue and the efforts the business owners have made to create a safe and upscale environment for adults," he wrote.
Reed indicated that he thought the Unions were being treated harshly. He asked Majors for more information and offered his "help to clear up any issues that could hinder the future success of the business."
In an interview with The Pitch, Reed said his letter was a "fact-finding" effort. "I'm not, like, fighting to save Xpressions," he said, adding that he hoped the Unions "would be vetted and treated fairly, just as well as any business."
Missouri state Sen. Shalonn "Kiki" Curls also took an interest in the Unions' plight. At a liquor-board hearing, Curls said she met the Unions at a fundraiser for Mayor Sly James. Later, she attended a meeting that the Unions had with police officials. She said she found the couple to be "genuine."
At the August 4 hearing, Curls stated her support for entrepreneurial activity. The club's opponents who put the hearing on their calendars did not care to listen to Curls talk about commerce, however. When she sat down to testify, she was jeered for speaking about a business that's not located in her Senate district (nor is it in Reed's council district).
Curls said she was at the club on June 18, the night that R. Kelly performed at the Sprint Center. The Unions had arranged for the singer to appear at Xpressions after the concert, an event they publicized on KPRS 103.3.
Kelly did not appear at the club, however. At the liquor-board hearing, Xpressions manager Orlando Singleton said he learned that Kansas City police officers had visited the singer's dressing room to warn him against making the appearance, citing the potential danger.
Kelly took the officers' advice and stayed away from the club. The police, meanwhile, were braced for trouble in the area around 220 Admiral. At the hearing, Eric Union showed video that he took of police officers mobilized on a bluff near the club. There was a shooting in downtown that night, but not in the vicinity of Xpressions. A 16-year-old girl showed up at a hospital with a gunshot wound to her neck. (Her injury was not life-threatening.) The girl was struck while in a car in a parking garage at 12th Street and Walnut.
A graphic in the video that Union shared noted the location of the shooting. "Police on cliff doing nothing while lady get shot at Power and Light," it read.
The Unions' supporters acknowledge that the couple made mistakes. Notably, they did not do enough to distance Xpressions from the legacy of NV and NRG. The name on the liquor license changed, but the troublemakers kept showing up.
"Some of the people they had coming down there, they were an embarrassment," Carol Coe says. "You wouldn't want them to be in a club with you. They had to learn this. They are young people."
Coe used to be a lawyer. Campaign-fund violations led to her being disbarred. At the liquor-board hearing, she sat in the front row of the auditorium — not at the table with the Unions and Vleisides. At one point, Vleisides, whose pink legal pad matched his tie and handkerchief, referred to Coe as his "legal assistant."
Vleisides argued that the Unions had made enough effort to operate a safe and law-abiding club. Under Vleisides' questioning, Randol said the couple had been cooperative. To her knowledge, no felony arrests had been made inside Xpressions.
Hedgepath left the auditorium during Randol's testimony. (He did not respond to a follow-up e-mail or a phone message left at one of his businesses.) Later in the day, Natasha Union addressed the rumor that Hedgepath is more than a landlord and continues to operate the club in some capacity. (Majors had raised the possibility during one of his early meetings with the Unions.) She denied that Hedgepath had any interest in the club, stating that she and her husband were financially committed to the business.
"We pretty much put our life savings into it," she said.
During his testimony, Eric Union described the costs of running a popular downtown nightclub. He said he had spent $47,000 on outside security.
A more docile crowd, of course, would not cost as much to control. The Unions, Singleton and other staff members talked at length about their efforts to refine their clientele, such as the 25-and-older policy on Saturdays. But under the city attorney's questioning, they acknowledged that most of the measures had been taken after the Unions were notified of the club's probation violation.
During the public-comment period, a handful of the club's unhappy neighbors rose to speak. Marvin Pool, a retired contractor who converted a building on Admiral into lofts, complained that activity at the club did not allow him to charge market-rate rents. "I'm 79 years old, and this is my retirement," he said, raising his voice.
Camille Brown, who rents an apartment near the club, said she was ready to move. "They did too little too late," she said, speaking of the Unions.
In an interview with The Pitch, Brown said the area around Xpressions gets "buck wild" on the weekends. Brown is frustrated with Xpressions. At the same time, she recognizes that entertainment options are limited for young black people in Kansas City. "Our kids," she said, "don't have anywhere to party."
The members of the liquor board who attended the August 4 hearing needed only a few minutes to deliberate. They voted unanimously to uphold the city's decision to revoke the club's license.
When the hearing broke up, a woman who works for the private security company that Xpressions hired to replace KC Patrol and Protection, muttered under her breath. "Jerks," she said.
Stapleton commiserated with the Unions, Vleisides and Coe after the board announced its decision. "I just feel sorry for them," she said of the young couple. "They're really great people."
Vleisides said after the hearing that he would ask the circuit court to restrain Regulated Industries from yanking the license. Last week, Coe said the Unions had not been officially notified of the revocation.
The club has continued to operate. Last Friday night, a group of four women tugged at the sides of their skirts as they walked in towering heels from a parked car to the club. It was 11 p.m., and there was no line to get inside. The uncertainty appears to be taking a toll. The women left the scarcely populated club after 30 minutes. The Xpressions website promotes a Labor Day event but none further in the future.
A day after the hearing, The Pitch asked Majors if he thought he made a mistake by giving Hedgepath the opportunity to sell the venue last year. The inspector let out a long sigh before answering.
"I honestly hoped the problem with the club was more management on Hedgepath's part than just the fact that it's a very large club," he said. "I thought that possibly with different management, it could be successful. I did have my doubts, and I certainly expressed those doubts with the Unions when I first met with them."
The sale, Majors said, gave him leverage that he didn't have with Hedgepath, who was not subject to the probationary period and its rules.
"I just didn't have the tools in place to effectively deal with club NV or NRG at that point in time," he said.
Hedgepath, meanwhile, remains a far-from-ordinary millionaire. The fact that alcohol has continued to be served at 220 Admiral Boulevard for as long as it has is a testament to his resourcefulness.