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Omni closes; city blamed

Provo officials deny they killed dance business

PROVO — At the end of the movie "Footloose," glittering confetti falls from the rafters as high school kids break into dance.

The scrappy hero, dressed in a tux, has finally triumphed over the leaders in the small town that banned dancing before his arrival. He boogies all night in celebration.

Not far from the town where this scene was filmed, a similar saga concluded earlier this month, but with a different ending. Provo's only dance club, Club Omni, shut its doors March 1 after nearly 10 years of operation.

The club's owner says the city's straight-laced leaders drove him out of town — a charge city official vehemently deny. They say he simply went out of business.

"My friends thought I would go out in a blaze of glory, but I'm leaving quietly," Ken Merena told the Deseret News. "I have hoisted the white flag and they have won."

No confetti fell on March 1 at Club Omni. Judging by attendance that night, most people in Provo didn't care the nightclub was closing.

Omni's attendance had dropped from more than 2,000 a night in 1996 to 50 or so in its final month. Merena quietly closed the club. "Yeah, we closed down ultimately because of no business, but why was there no business?" Merena said. "It's not arguable that absent the city's actions I would still be in business."

Provo city leaders say such claims are ridiculous.

"Obviously, Mr. Merena is frustrated, and we are sorry his business has failed," said Mike Mower, spokesman for Provo Mayor Lewis K. Billings. "We do not agree and haven't agreed in the past with his characterizations and allegations of what has taken place."

Since 1998, Merena has been charged with nine criminal violations related to his management of Club Omni, 153 W. Center. The charges range from an alleged assault in which Merena reportedly pushed a patron against a brick wall to an incident in 1998 in which Merena allegedly sold beer after hours.

Merena says the charges are bogus and are part of an orchestrated effort to shut him down. For example, on the night officers say he sold beer after hours, Merena says he was out of town.

"Common sense tells you any citizen being charged with this many violations over a two-year period is being harassed," Merena said. "All of these charges are unmitigated baloney, but you've got to defend every one of them, because if you don't you'll end up in jail."

Last Tuesday, five of those charges were dismissed in 4th District Court; Merena entered no-contest pleas to the other four. He said he spent about $8,000 in attorney fees defending each charge and owes his attorneys about $150,000 in legal bills.

Merena's allegations beg the question: Why would the city want him out of business?

Would the city really pass laws and trump up frivolous charges to force the club to close? "We have much better things to do than that. We're not in the business of making up charges," said Provo City Attorney Rick Romney. "We are responsible to respond to reports we receive. I don't know of any concerted effort to (shut Omni down)."

Some city leaders say Merena brought his troubles upon himself. The problems began in 1998, when an alleged gang member shot and killed a 17-year-old boy at the club, which banned smoking, alcohol, moshing, hats, baggy pants and explicit music.

Attendance dramatically dropped after the shooting, so Merena poured cash into an aggressive marketing campaign to attract patrons. It worked, until illegal dances started popping up in parking garages across town.

In response to the increase in illegal dances and raves, the city began exploring the creation of an ordinance that would impose strict regulations on promoters.

Merena says he was denied a request to serve on the committee that helped draft the ordinance. Instead, his attorney sat on the committee, billing Merena $150 an hour.

The ordinance that came out of the committee, which became law in May 2001, was not what Merena had hoped for. It required him to install metal detectors and surveillance cameras and hire state-certified security guards.

"I think we try to look out for young people and I think most of the public appreciates us being a watchdog," said Dennis Poulsen, a member of the Provo City Council.

Schools, government and churches were exempt, which meant Merena's main competitor, dances at Brigham Young University, did not have to comply with the same regulations.

The city insisted Club Omni was not the target of the dance hall ordinance, even though Omni was the only dance club in town.

Merena said he spent more than $10,000 to comply with the ordinance. Many of his security guards left for better-paying jobs once they were state-certified.

A year later, the ordinance was rewritten and the security measures Merena had spent thousands of dollars to comply with were dropped. "When we had jumped through their hoop, they removed the hoop. We couldn't unspend the money," Merena said.

Money that Merena had used for his $140,000 a year advertising budget was gone, and attendance was declining.

Because the college crowd at Club Omni was small, Merena threw a free dance on July 3 for kids 16 and up. He said that decision led to the downfall of Club Omni.

"There's no question that our financial position at that point was not strong, but who dealt the final blow? The city did," he said. "They set off a chain reaction on July 3 that was the proximate cause of Club Omni going down the tubes."

A half hour before closing on July 3, police officers demanded Merena close emergency doors he had opened to ventilate the club on a 100-degree night. He had kept the doors open on hot nights for eight years, and he refused the request.

Police officers then shut down the club and pushed 1,600 kids into a parking lot, where a fight broke out. To stop the fight, officers used batons and pepper spray.

"We couldn't get 800 people there the next week. It fell to the point where even when it was free we weren't getting 500 people there," Merena said. "In this business, if your customers don't feel safe, they won't come."

By the time fire officials came last month to perform a routine inspection, 53 people were in the club. Safety officials cited Merena for several blocked exits, and it was reported that a scenario similar to the nightclub tragedy in Rhode Island could have happened at Omni.

"The opportunity to have mass hysteria and have people jammed up in the exits wasn't even an issue," Fire Marshal Jim Guynn said. "Without a doubt it was one of the safest clubs I've ever been in. I would have no problem letting my kids go there."

Merena said the publicity and possible legal fees associated with the inspection were too much to overcome. He decided to shut down.

The building, which Merena says has an appraised value of $1.1 million, is now for sale. Provo and Orem, two college towns with an estimated 50,000 students, are without a dance club.

City Councilman Paul Warner, who works at BYU, says the club failed because college kids don't dance as much as they once did. He says the city didn't intentionally harass Merena.

"I don't know if it filled a needed role. There's so much going on here anyway," said Poulsen, who has been nicknamed "Mr. Footloose." "We don't have a problem with dancing, though. I met my wife at a dance."