Controversy continues around Athena Night Club, neighbors react

Monday, January 28, 2008 | 9:29 p.m. CST; updated 7:16 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — The call to Columbia police about a fight at Athena Night Club early Sunday in which MU basketball star Stefhon Hannah’s jaw was broken was by no means unusual.

Police and the club’s residential and commercial neighbors near the intersection of Hitt and Locust streets said Monday that noise, fights and liquor law violations have become routine at the club, which opened in 2004.

That pattern has placed the club at risk of losing its liquor license, said Lori Fleming, Columbia city finance director.

Fleming said that in November 2007 the city sent a letter to Athena, 1100 Locust St., stating the club was in danger of losing its liquor license if it did not provide proper supporting documentation to the city and have a plan to reduce disturbances at the location.

Athena’s liquor license expired this month, but a provisional license was granted to the club after the nightclub’s management met with police.

“Prior to the meeting, the police had identified them as having a high number of serious incidents,” Fleming said.

The club’s owner, Daniel Verso, could not be reached by telephone Monday, and no one answered calls to the club.

Disturbances requiring a police response have been higher for the past few years at Athena than for other nightclubs, Capt. Zim Schwartze said.

“Other locations very close by are not experiencing these kinds of calls,” she said.

The police started to observe the pattern and focused on patrolling the area more in the past few years.

In 2007, police recorded approximately 150 contacts with the club, Schwartze said. Of those, 30 cases led to reports or arrests. Those numbers are up from 2006, when approximately 120 contacts led to 24 reports or arrests, she said. But some of the increase could be the result of the stepped-up patrols, she said.

Schwartze, the department’s community operations division commander, said the police have tried to work with the club’s management.

“Besides trying to step up our self-initiated efforts, we’ve had contact with (the club’s) business representatives in the past,” Schwartze said. But the police department’s efforts to work with the club’s management have not been successful, she said.

Meanwhile, owners of businesses near Athena have noticed the increase in problems as well as the police presence.

Last November, police responded to a report of five shots fired from the parking lot of Bambino’s Italian Cafe at 1:18 a.m., several hours after the restaurant had closed. Police questioned about 40 people outside the restaurant at 203 Hitt St., across the street from the club. No one was injured, and no one was arrested in the incident.

Brian Ash, co-owner of Bambino’s, said that although the restaurant closes at 10 p.m., before the large crowds begin to show up at the nightclub, he still finds the crowds disquieting. He said he requested increased patrolling in the area.

“Oh, it’s been very concerning,” Ash said. “It can’t be good for business to have that kind of nonsense going on next door.”

Some of Athena’s neighbors are less bothered than Ash by the happenings at the club.

“I’m up late, so it doesn’t really bother me much,” said MU law student Matt Frederick, who rents a house across the street from Athena. “But I have come home late at night and seen crowds congregating, being loud.”

Frederick said the patrons of Athena are no worse than those at other local bars.

“It seems to me just people looking to have a good time,” Frederick said. “Crowds are crowds. The crowd at Athena’s is just as boisterous as any other crowd.”

Frederick said perhaps bars should not be located so close to residential areas.

“It seems like a zoning problem more than anything else,” he said. “But that is the city of Columbia’s problem.”

Rha Bateo, a clerk at Hitt Street Mini Mart, said the store gets lots of business from Athena’s clientele. But he said the atmosphere at night changes radically when the students come back from breaks. “There are no students on the holidays, and when they aren’t here, there are no problems,” he said. “But when they come back for school, it happens again.”

“The city is currently reviewing its plan to revoke the license,” Finance Director Fleming said. “We need legal grounds to revoke a license, but we would always rather work with a business than shut them down.”

— Justin O’Neil contributed to this report

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