It's 2:30 a.m., a time when most area bartenders are grabbing half-finished beers and cocktails and hustling patrons toward the door. But at NV, a cavernous, Euro-style dance club in downtown Chapel Hill, the party is just starting to heat up. A white stretch limo pulls up, depositing a few stylish, underdressed women and their dates--men with gelled, razor-cut hair and well-cut clothing. A large group of the young and the restless--ranging from the self-consciously hip to nightclubbers too wound up to call it a night and go home--mingle on the steps in front of the club, deciding whether to pony up the cover charge.
NV's entryway is understated and posh. It's unrecognizable as the former location of the Ram Triple Theater on Rosemary Street, a place remembered mainly for cheap tickets, third-run films and its run-down vibe.
Inside, 400 or so patrons, including a high proportion of foreign students, dance to techno and deep trance in an event known as Nova. Repetitive, industrial beats boom over an EAW Avalon sound system--megawatts of throbbing, harnessed power that seem to invade the viscera. Even the acoustic ceiling tiles in the mirrored restroom, with its stainless-steel sinks and clear plastic counters, rattle along to the bottom-heavy beat.
The club has two levels: a sunken dance floor and the bar area. The DJ booth, home to three turntables and the intent, headphoned DJ, is located above the dance floor so that dancers look up to it. The DJs--mainly members of the local Resonance Project--are the stars of this show, although the décor comes in a close second. The bar is nearly 50 feet of curved, sleek stainless steel. Behind it, lighted recesses hold bottled liquors in alluring Midori green and Chambord purple, while milky white Venetian glass lamps suspended on slender rods illuminate the black-speckled faux-granite bar. The dressed-to-be-seen patrons, those not on the dance floor, stand near the bar or huddle in intimate, Jetsons-esque half-circle booths. Others gather around one of the for-standing-only cocktail tables surrounding the dance floor railing, watching the action.
This is as uptown as the club scene gets in Chapel Hill. But behind the surface glitz, mirror balls and stainless-steel fixtures, how Club NV came to be built is a testament to 25-year-old owner/entrepreneur Brent Lee's stubbornness and ego. It's the story of how Lee, a UNC-Chapel Hill economics undergrad, sold an unoriginal idea for an e-commerce business to a wealthy NYC-based investor; of how this same wealthy businessman was later indicted on conspiracy and bribery charges; and of how Lee emerged unscathed from a dot-com implosion that destroyed several successful local Internet companies.
Lee, a good-looking blond sporting a fashionable patch of facial hair, won't discuss the specifics of his seemingly meteoric rise from frat boy to nightclub impresario. But there are others who will: former dot-comers who lost everything and subcontractors who say Lee has trouble paying his bills. Since January of 2001, when Lee began converting the Ram Triple into NV, the club has been vandalized, intensely scrutinized by city inspectors and beset by money woes.
But this particular evening, Lee seems every bit the gracious host.
"With me," he says, taking time out to be interviewed in the unfinished theater adjoining the club, "it's all about providing people with something they want and need, whether they realize it or not, whether it's car sales, or helping them to understand, 'This is what you need and why you need it.' And that's sort of what I do here. I walk around, shake hands--'Can I get you something?' 'Let me get a cocktail waitress for you; Let me explain the music to you.'"
From the outside, NV seems to be a never-ending party for its young, straightedge owner. But it's a party that began as a dot-com debacle and has somehow continued, thanks to Lee's hustle and the willingness of others to let his tab ride.
It's a busy Saturday night and Lee is seated on a worktable in the gutted, unfinished section of the Ram Theater--the part of his space he calls "Phase II" or "The Lounge." The space is unlit except for light that shines from the open door, which opens into a back hallway. At various times, the bar manager and other bar employees come in to ask his advice. He exudes authority and confidence, having cut his teeth with a brief stint at the Treehouse, a Rosemary Street club located just up the street from NV where students throw down to aboveground dance music and hip hop.
Sipping a Stewart's cream soda, Lee explains that he used to belong to a fraternity and partied plenty, but says, "Life is pretty when you're sober." He also dismisses any questions about NV being home to an Ecstasy-fueled rave scene. "We're not about rave culture; we're about club culture," he emphasizes.
Surprisingly, this ambassador of "club culture" spent his formative years in Traveler's Rest, a bucolic, moneyed community outside Greenville, S.C. Lee stresses that while his family wasn't wealthy, they considered travel an important part of a person's education. And for Lee, "education" meant nightclubbing.
"Of course, whenever I was traveling, then I was always in whatever the hottest spot was at that time," he recalls. "Y'know--weaseling my way in the back door, begging or pleading or doing whatever it took." Lee then rattles off a list of NYC dance clubs: "The Tunnel, Limelight ... Exit's one of my big favorites."
By Lee's senior year of high school, he and his friends were hanging out at a Greenville dive called the White Castle. "It was actually not a cool club," he says. "Guys would ride by in pickup trucks with rebel flags and yell slang terms at us. But we loved to dance ... and you couldn't get it [house music] on the radio. ... I fell in love with this music listening to gay house--what's now called circuit house. ... At the time, we all called it gay house--amazingly politically incorrect, but nonetheless ... "
Lee arrived in the Triangle in 1994. He transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill from Clemson, where he was a member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. On the local scene, he'd visit clubs like the old Power Company in Durham, as well as Legends in Raleigh and Gotham in Chapel Hill.
"I love this area," he enthuses. "However, there are some things that I think need a little massaging. And one of them just happens to be the nightlife. There are plenty of beer bars in this area, so I wanted to provide a different atmosphere to the mature clubgoer--you know, the sophisticated clubgoer. And that's what I attempted to do. ... People come here and say, 'I don't understand the difference between trance, techno, break beat, drum and bass ... ' No matter what it is, I teach people, and people end up loving it. This culture is very, very addictive."
Lee did his research. His club boasts a full Martin Intelligent Lighting system and an Avalon sound system. "It's not at the level of FAZON (sound systems) or anything like that, but a lot of the major clubs use it," Lee says. "The exact same system we've got here in little old Chapel Hill."
Others on the regional club scene agree that NV is a welcome addition to the Triangle and a shot in the arm for electronic music and DJ culture. Other club owners--the Cat's Cradle's Frank Heath, for example--would all like to see NV succeed. And while there are other local dance clubs--Gotham and Players in Chapel Hill, the Office and Legends in Raleigh--you'd have to go to Charlotte's Mythos to find a sound system on par with NV. In fact, Lee's original vision of NV as an entertainment complex--complete with a lounge and martini bar--sounds nearly identical to the current setup at Mythos, a semi-exclusive, enforced dress-code dance club complete with a Studio 54-type doorman who decides if you're important or trendy enough to gain admittance. At this point, while NV is building a clientele, they're hardly in a position to pick and choose among would-be patrons. Lee, however, insists that exclusivity is not his goal.
"For me, it's really all about the music," he says. "These are hardcore clubbers: people that wear the suits during the day--work at IBM or Nortel or BTI or wherever--and at night, they come here, enjoy themselves with true friends, and let the music take them over."
But most of the people at NV hardly seem like young execs dancing off steam, ready to network and hang with the beautiful people after a day spent crunching the keypad. Rather, the club seems peopled with college kids and a disproportionate number of foreign-born guests--students and immigrants--who grew up in techno clubs.
When asked, some guests say that they go to NV because "you can dress up." Or dress down: Many of the women opt for backless shirts, sheer tank tops and/or bare midriffs. But the vibe is not as loose or even as dance-oriented as local gay clubs like Legends. The people on the dance floor seem to be swaying rather than dancing--letting the bass pulse through their bodies as they check out the light show or ogle potential hook-up partners.
"They're feeling the music," explains Lee, nodding.
Lee describes his vision for NV as a maze of rooms--a complex like Limelight in NYC. He points to a corner of the now-gutted theater: "What I call the Blue Room down there is the original concession area. This was the smallest theater we're sitting in right now. And then the bar area was the middle theater, and then the dance floor and the VIP area was the long, biggest theater."
He'd also like to add a small restaurant or record store in the complex. The VIP area sounds intriguing. Its credo, listed on the club's Web site reads: "VIP Status is either earned or understood. Perks include a no-wait policy, reserved seating, use of the notorious Green Room with private bar ... and more."
"We're still working on it," says Lee, when asked to give a tour of the area. He continues to describe his vision for Phase II--a lounge area for patrons to get away from the music and chill. But when pressed, he becomes vague about when these renovations will happen.
"Whenever funds become available," he says, then asks if I know any investors.
While NV's clientele appears to be expanding, the club has failed to evolve into the über-exclusive scene that Lee and original partner Dykki Settle envisioned in late '99 when they decided to start, as Settle described it, "a Miami-style dance club."
It was to be called "Elevations," and it would offer a hangout for young professionals like themselves. What Lee and Settle didn't foresee was that the dot-com bubble was about to burst.
In 1995, Settle helped launch Catalogue.com., an Internet web-hosting site. The company operated out of a funky-chic space in Carrboro that's now home to the Orange County Social Club. Settle, who'd been on the Triangle Internet scene since 1992 (including a stint as chief technical officer at Ventana Press) was well known in the tech community. A UNC-grad who's still described as a visionary and architect of the area's Internet explosion, Settle was connected early on and riding high on the dot-com wave. Catalogue.com, within a few years, grew to the point where its owners were ready to take on a massive expansion.
While the company's bread and butter client was PHE (Adam & Eve), Catalogue.com hosted Web sites for Merge Records and the now-defunct Mammoth Records, even helping to hook up the Cat's Cradle with a T1 line for live Internet broadcasts of local rock shows, as well as being responsible for getting UNC's station WXYC on the Internet. The Catalogue.com staff was young, plugged into the community and interested in music and pop culture. Especially Settle, a self-described "lover of music and the innovative" with experience in electronica.
Settle was reluctant to be interviewed about his work and dealings with Lee. But several peers and former co-workers describe Settle as a flamboyant, young dot-comer, who was known both for his eccentricities and for living in style: going into Uniquities on Franklin Street and buying multiple pairs of Diesel jeans; owning several cars (including a Jaguar XJR convertible, a rare 1990 Land Rover Defender, a van and a '52 Buick); frequenting upscale bars and fine-dining establishments such as Fusions (now Elaine's) and Aurora. He was a cheerful local character who tried on different personas: There was his briefly lived Southern gentleman phase where he sported a straw hat, vest and carried a cane that he was in the process of learning how to twirl. Others swear to have seen "Dykki dressed as a Druid," wandering downtown Chapel Hill playing a flute. According to the Web site for the Chimera Club, a UNC-based group devoted to fantasy and science fiction, horror and role-playing games, Settle was for a short time acting Chimera Club president.
By 1998, Settle's ambition and penchant for fantasy flourished in the seemingly attainable make-believe world inhabited by a growing number of paper millionaires. At the time, he told the Triangle Business Journal, "I no longer underestimate the sheer fantasy world [investors] are living in."
Catalogue.com looked for ways to expand its business and accepted a seven-figure offer from one of its clients, Durhamite Eric Garrison. Along with another, out-of-state partner, Garrison owned DVD Flix and Music HQ (known collectively as DVD Holdings), a pair of Internet companies hosted by Catalogue.com that aspired to become the Amazon.com of digital audio and video--the place to shop on the net for the latest CDs and DVDs. In return, the merger would provide DVD Holdings with Catalogue.com's web-hosting and design expertise.
It was through Garrison's New York connections that he met businessman Tommy Kontogiannis. Kontogiannis, recalls Garrison, "had the big money." He was brought in as the primary shareholder in DVD Holdings/Catalogue.com and provided the companies with an influx of cash.
But, like so many other dot-com ventures, DVD Holdings (DVD Flix and Music HQ) failed to take off. The company's strategy--to sell DVDs and CDs below cost with the hope of building a customer base--continued to lose money. Other, discretionary operating expenses further tapped the company's resources. There were first-class flights, pricey hotel bills and visits to a local gentlemen's club.
"Let me just say, I wasn't at Thee Dollhouse, but I got to pick up the tab for it," says Garrison with a rueful laugh.
In retrospect, none of the local entrepreneurs knew whom they were getting in bed with, business-wise. According to court records, Kontogiannis pleaded guilty to a 1993 conspiracy charge and was put on five years probation. And, at the time of the merger between DVD Holdings and Catalogue.com--unbeknownst to any of his partners in North Carolina--Kontogiannis was under investigation in New York for bribery charges that he'd later be indicted for.
While there's no evidence that Kontogiannis did anything illegal in his dealings with DVD Holdings/Catalogue.com, the deal did go sour: By the end of '99, Garrison was out; his company DVD Holdings--for all purposes--was gone.
Settle was later quoted in the Business Journal as saying that DVD Holdings "defaulted on the agreement. They stopped paying us on the schedule of the merger agreement."
"Basically, you had these dot-com people looking for ways to get rich," says Garrison. "The intentions were all the same: Make quick money. It was like an episode of Survivor. There were alliances and in the end, everybody got thrown off the island."
The merger was dissolved and Settle regrouped, with the remnant of Catalogue.com now called Calvander Corp. The DVD Holdings deal had tanked, but Kontogiannis still wanted to partner with a profitable Web business in the Triangle. He was looking for an Internet property that would dazzle investors.
Enter Brent Lee, a then 23-year-old entrepreneur who approached Settle with an e-commerce idea that seemed like it could propel them all into the big leagues.
Lee was still working on his economics degree when he created his own small business consulting firm called L.B. Taylor and Associates (it's a play on his full name, Brent Taylor Lee, he explains). But it was actually through his job as a salesman at Performance BMW that he met D. Mark Gabel, a local who worked at Chapel Hill Printing and Graphics, a company located just across N.C. 15-501 from the dealership. Gabel mentioned to Lee that he had a patent pending on an idea to convert e-mail to a stamped, addressed letter, a process he believed would attract a variety of customers. College kids could have their e-mail converted to actual letters for parents and grandparents without access to a computer; large businesses could use it for billing purposes--it could even be adapted to work with the U.S. Post Office. Lee was interested and went to work finding the capital to launch the idea.
In September of '99, Lee and Gabel became partners and formed LetterPath Inc. Lee pitched the company to Settle (according to Settle, they'd met through a venture capitalist he knew), who passed it on to Kontogiannis. Settle and Lee were convinced that LetterPath would be a multimillion dollar venture that would revolutionize the U.S. postal system. Kontogiannis agreed, and Lee and Gabel's company, LetterPath.com, was accepted into the fold.
The "fold," as of March 25 of 2000, included LetterPath, Calvander and NetworkArts, a Web design firm built up by Durhamite Shea Tisdale. These companies merged into Bravo.com, with Kontogiannis once again listed as the primary shareholder. Lee and Gabel each received $100,000 up front from Kontogiannis, as well as $300,000 in startup funds for LetterPath.
While the LetterPath patent was being searched, Tisdale put Lee, now on salary, to work as a salesman at the company, during which time Tisdale says Lee failed to bring in new accounts. "Lee was much more interested in driving around and collecting money," he says. Lee insists he "doesn't recall" if he brought in any accounts and, in an e-mail, says Tisdale's statements are an "inaccurate depiction" of his job.
Tisdale and Lee also disagree about what happened with an office Lee rented in Carrboro before LetterPath merged with Bravo and began sharing its office space. Although Lee told Tisdale he'd taken care of the lease, it turned out Lee owed the landlord back rent.
"Basically he was shifting and dodging, and I said, 'You lied to me,'" Tisdale recalls. "I cleaned up the mess; I found another tenant, dealt with the landlord ... "
Lee, following "another incident," was fired from Bravo.com shortly thereafter.
Lee remembers the whole affair differently. After being confronted with Tisdale's statements about his meeting with the landlord, Lee admits that he did rent the space before the merger but that once LetterPath became part of Bravo it was "the corporation's duty to pick up the tab." He says that he was asked to tender his resignation and refused, at which point he was let go.
It also turned out that Lee and Gabel weren't the first to think up the process of converting e-mail to stamped mail. What they had done was get a letter from a Chicago attorney stating the patent application for LetterPath "seemed to be in order," says Tisdale and other sources involved with Bravo.
That meant that Kontogiannis had paid Lee and Gabel $100,000 apiece for rights to an idea they didn't officially own.
"The lawyers did the submission but not an extensive patent search," says Tisdale. "Tommy [Kontogiannis] wanted his money back."
"That was a very bizarre situation," explains Gabel. "He's [Kontogiannis] a Greek guy who made his money in shipping and construction and he tried to run this the same way, which meant it wasn't going to work. It turns out there was a guy in California who had a preexisting patent but he'd gotten it as a utility patent, claiming the various hardware and software things as an invention, which was not right. I don't think it should have been granted but I didn't want to fight it."
In the meantime, Kontogiannis had already been laying the groundwork for LetterPath, using his connections to snag a meeting with the U.S. Postmaster General and his people at the postmaster's D.C. office, recalls Gabel, who attended the meeting along with Lee, Settle and "a couple of Tommy's people." Bravo had even gone ahead and rented several of the pricey Pitney Bowes machines that were capable of handling the e-mail to snail mail process (the machines were never used).
Kontogiannis and the rest of the Bravo staff even toyed with the idea of buying the original patent, Tisdale says, but they and the patent holder couldn't agree on a price.
Lee and Gabel each kept their $100,000 payout from Kontogiannis. (When asked about this amount, as well as the $300,000 to LetterPath, Lee responds that it was "at least" that much money.)
"Technically, we had done nothing wrong," says Gabel. "We worked that out--the money he paid was supposed to be an option on our [LetterPath/Bravo] stock. ... And besides that, we didn't have any to give back."
Calls to Kontogiannis' attorney were not returned.
With LetterPath's future in a holding pattern, Bravo carried on and "backed into a corporation" in order to take the company public, hooking up with a publicly traded mobile home retailer in Georgia (Apple Homes Corporation). According to Tisdale, he and the other Bravo partners didn't realize Apple Homes was yet another of Kontogiannis' business ventures. "He played all sides of the table," Tisdale says. Following another name change, Settle and Tisdale found themselves working for Genfinity Corp. as of August 2000, operating out of offices (rented by Tisdale for NetworkArts) at 308 W. Rosemary St. But Tisdale, installed as Genfinity's president, was having serious doubts about the people he was dealing with. Unfortunately, by then it was too late.
Tisdale hired a private investigator to check out Kontogiannis but found nothing. Then, after hiring a second, pricier P.I., a lawyer and former public defender, he discovered not only Kontogiannis' prior conspiracy conviction but that the businessman was--at the time--under investigation for grand larceny and conspiracy in New York. By November 2000, Kontogiannis was named in a 123 count indictment involving grand larceny and bribery in the sale of computers to a NYC public school district. The case is still pending.
Back in Chapel Hill, after only 40 days at the helm, Tisdale resigned as president of the company in November 2000; NetworkArts, the 15-employee local company he had built from scratch, was gone. Settle, who left Genfinity the same week, was watching his world come crashing down around him as his tech stocks were becoming next to worthless.
"I feel like things were misrepresented to me and that, in the end, they [Kontogiannis and associates] ended up with my company and did not compensate me," Tisdale says of the experience. "I've never received a penny or a single share of stock--it was never issued to anyone in N.C.," he says. (Settle says he also never received any stock.) At last check, GFIN was trading well below one cent a share.
Lee has a different recollection about how things played out: "It all started ... I started a dot-com company [LetterPath, Inc. in September 1999] and was running that for a while. There were actually three or four guys, and each of us had our own little company and we brought the little companies together and had a fairly decent one, and that's the one that got snatched ... It was one of those crazy times when all the little companies were being gobbled up by the big fish."
"To be honest," continues Lee, "I don't remember who the end result was. ... And honestly, when it happened for us, I kind of, uh [he starts to sing the Steve Miller song] 'Go on, take the money and run.' I got a nice little settlement."
Even before Lee took the money and ran--back when he was still on the Bravo payroll--he went to work on his dream of opening a nightclub. Lee says he got the idea during the summer of 2000 when he was out at the movies with a group of friends. He was chatting with a clerk at the concessions counter at the Ram Triple when he learned the theater's lease was about to expire in October 2000. Lee says he decided to "go for it."
"I had a bid in before they ever closed their doors," he says with a hint of pride. Lee began making plans for the club--doodling logo designs and talking about his vision for the space--while Tisdale says he was supposed to be bringing in accounts for Bravo (a contention Lee disputes).
"[He was] in the office every day with basically nothing to do. I know he was working on the logo then," Gabel says.
Even before the lease was signed for the club space, Lee, with no architectural training, started work on plans for the club. Sitting in his living room, he began to pencil in his idea of a high-tech, Euro-style nightspot. "I started out, honestly, with graph paper, saying, 'One block equals two feet or whatever,'" he recalls.
Lee and Settle were partners on the project, and it was no secret to their colleagues that they were planning on opening a nightclub. At the time, neither man worried about the Internet craze--and its cash flow--one day drying up.
On Jan. 1, 2001, the day Lee took over the Ram Triple's lease, he and a 10-man crew entered the theater with sledgehammers, where they broke up the musty old movie seats and loaded them into a Ryder truck.
Since Franklin Street Plaza, the building's owners, had the asbestos removed, fireproofing had to be reapplied--sprayed--onto the space's ceilings. A.J. Jourdan, of Industrial Firestop Specialists, came and did the work: He was to receive half the $13,000 fee before the job and the rest upon completion. Settle wrote Jourdan a check for the first half, but at the time, that's all Jourdan received.
Settle and Lee were just a few months into their investment in NV when the long-building dot-com implosion hit home. As a headline in The Washington Post on Jan. 13, 2001, put it, "In Dot-Com Crash, Parachutes Are Scarce."
With his tech stocks in a nosedive, Settle left his partnership with Lee. It wasn't long before he was out of the nightclub business.
Lee is closemouthed about exactly what happened, as is Settle, who explained his departure from NV by saying only, "The bottom dropped out of the market--bad timing." (Settle now works as an info-tech employee for the nonprofit INTRAH, a global health development assistance organization based out of the UNC-School of Medicine.)
With no partner to help cover the mounting bills, Lee went looking for investors. He also stopped returning calls from Jourdan and other subcontractors contacted by The Independent.
"Once he didn't pay me I started checking some stuff out--'something ain't right here,'" Jourdan says.
Lee would tell him and the other subcontractors to meet him outside NV to get paid. But it never happened. "[We'd] hang out in that little covered area right in front of the barbershop. He'd call and tell you he was going to pay you and never show up," Jourdan says. He'd hide in his house--you'd knocked on the door and he'd call the police. ... It was one of these situations where there was a story told but the whole story wasn't told, only the parts that make people look good." (Lee confirms that Jourdan came to his house and he called the police.)
Lee continued construction and tried to keep his costs down. On March 15, he applied for a permit and listed himself as the general contractor. He also listed NV's renovation cost as only $10,000, a figure OK'd by Chapel Hill Building Inspector Bobby Pettiford, even though a contractor later involved with the project would put actual renovation costs at around $400,000.
"I think more what happened was, the Town of Chapel Hill was hoodooed by him somehow--he made false statements to them to get a permit," Jourdan says. (Lee denies making false statements to the city or bilking his subcontractors.)
With the largest theater now gutted, Lee and his crew had to deal with the walls--opening up the space--and had to figure out how to make the sloped movie theater into a flat, state-of-the-art dance floor. Apparently, they had a lot of fun doing it.
"We rented Bobcats and put on hardhats and goggles and aspirator masks and drove Bobcats through the walls--that was a blast!" Lee says. He and his crew then completely gutted the place, using a jackhammer attachment (mounted on a Bobcat) to break up the concrete.
Lee says the work went well for the most part. "We did have one floor drain in the bar that was a little bit off, but that was no big deal; we ended up making that work," he says. But there were still subcontractors who hadn't been paid.
Then on May 14, Lee reported a larceny and vandalism at NV. He arrived to find the club's doors unlocked, and a foam product sprayed on the walls and floors. Paint was sprayed on the walls with "words directed at Mr. Lee," according to Chapel Hill police reports. No one was charged. That same day, Lee's house in Carrboro was vandalized.
"Someone went in and vandalized it [the club]," Jourdan recalled. "Brent called the police on me. Hell, he owed so many people ... something was spray-painted on the wall in Mexican. He had a bunch of Mexicans in there so I figured he wasn't paying them."
Only two days later, on May 16, Lee received his first stop work order, signed by Inspector Pettiford, for violation of state building code Volume 1 A, which states: "Any improvement or structure where the cost of the undertaking is $30,000 or more the General Contractor must be licensed."
Lee's DIY approach to building his club had finally gotten him in trouble, but he quickly got around it by hooking up with Providence Development in Greensboro, which received a permit for NV on March 21. Again, Lee listed his renovation costs as $10,000 and, for the second time, his application was again OK'd by Pettiford.
On paper, Lee was back in business. But in a phone interview, Providence representative Ben Crook revealed that the company never did any work on the club.
Crook is hesitant to talk about Lee: "What did Brent say we did?" he asked warily. "We considered working with [Lee] as an investment to help him out." When asked why their name was listed on NV's work permit for six months, Crook replies, "There was a 'discovery' period ... we walked the property, but no work at all was done. ... It was an investment deal."
So Lee, for all practical purposes, continued to act as the project's general contractor.
When questioned, Lee is evasive as he describes just who the contractor was before Providence Development, and--since Providence didn't do any actual construction--if he acted as the (unlicensed) general contractor for his club.
"Absolutely not," he says. "If you have a general contractor, you still have subcontractors that have to do the work ... 'cause when it comes time for inspections, those guys are the ones that go through the inspections process and get signed off."
But since subcontractors were reporting to Lee, wasn't he acting as the general contractor?
"No. You can say I acted as the, um ... the project manager. Like, I was acting as the guy that scheduled the plumbers and scheduled the electricians and scheduled those people, but I did no work myself."
Lee says that Providence was only interested in doing the construction to finish the club if Lee agreed to cut them in as partners--one source said 50 percent. Lee balked, and Providence filed to take their name off the work permit. As a result, Lee was served his second stop work order on Aug. 23.
Up until this second stop work order, getting the club going had been an adventure for Lee--riding Bobcats through walls and taking an active part in the demolition process. After eight months of renovations, the money was running out and it seemed like a long shot that he'd ever be able to open the club without taking on a partner or finding investors.
But the same day Providence was officially taken off NV's permit, Lee met an unlikely knight-errant: General Contractor Donald Whittier, owner of Essential Builders.
In addition to building homes and doing renovations, Donald Whittier is also a Tae Kwon Do instructor and indie film producer. He heard about Lee and his bedeviled construction project from a neighbor. Whittier was interested in seeing NV and its young owner succeed. And he had what Lee clearly lacked: experience and a good reputation with the city inspectors.
Whittier says, "Before I took the permit over, I went and met with all the inspectors and head of the inspections department and said, 'This is what I'm doing. I don't know what the history is, but I'm only going to do it right.' At one point I even thought about investing in it because I thought it was a neat idea--a cool, kickass club."
But once Whittier officially signed on as Lee's general contractor, he also learned bits and pieces--filtered through Lee--about NV's financial history.
"My understanding is that [Brent] had three or four hundred thousand dollars, a chunk of change, and then somebody else had about that much money that needed to go into it also, and when the bottom fell out of the market, he [Lee's partner] lost it all. So Brent found himself in a situation where he had dropped--when I came in--about $300,000 into the club. It needed another two or three hundred thousand to finish, and he had only $100,000 left."
Whittier inherited a job that was, by his accounts, "80 percent finished." And, as he'd promised Lee, he finished construction and got the club up to code so that it could pass its final inspection and receive an occupancy permit.
Whittier went as far as to introduce Brent to possible investors and venture capitalists, people who really didn't need to invest their money but who might be interested in owning part of a nightclub.
"He just presented himself wrong," Whittier says of Lee. "Across the board, all these people were willing to consider investing, all these people were willing to support him and get the club open, and he just made really bad decisions," Whittier says. "The problem is, these people who run these companies don't need more money. What they wanted to do was take friends in there and say, 'Hey, check out my cool club.' Brent wanted a straight loan or nothing."
By now, anxious for an influx of cash, Lee pushed for a Halloween opening, which Whittier insisted was impossible, telling him a realistic date to shoot for was Jan. 1, 2002. Lee scuttled his plan to open on Halloween and changed the opening date to Dec. 1, but didn't bother telling Whittier.
"What happened was, he [Lee] doesn't even tell me about Dec. 1," Whittier says, who found out about Lee's plan when his project supervisor, Mark Markwood, offhandedly told him he was going to call the inspections department so they could get their occupancy permit.
Since it was still November, Whittier asked what the rush was. "We're like a month away," he recalls telling him. To which Markwood replied, "We're gonna be open by the first."
Lee had already booked an out-of-town act for Saturday, Dec. 1, and printed up 400 invitations for a VIP celebration to unveil the club that previous week.
"I pretty much told Brent, 'I will do everything that we can do to be open,'" Whittier says. "So we busted butt, did everything we could. We pretty much got all the inspections except the final inspections."
But Lee's luck, or maybe the patience of the building inspectors, ran out.
At 4 p.m. on Nov. 30, while Lee frantically stocked the bar in anticipation of opening, city building Inspector Pettiford and inspections Director Lance Norris reviewed the club. This time they turned Lee down.
"Brent was turned down for seemingly minor things, suggesting a weird history with the inspections officer--all conjecture of course," Whittier says. "For one thing, he'd fixed all the things a previous inspector had checked. ... I mean, he's stocking the bar; he's doing everything."
When Lee got the bad news, "he's sitting there against the wall; he's shaking," Whittier recalls. "He's saying, 'There must be something we can do,' repeating it over and over."
At Lee's request, Whittier drove him to the inspections department. It's 4:45 p.m., Friday. At this point, Whittier told Lee that he can't take responsibility for his decisions anymore. "One of our deals was, that when he had the stop work order, was that I was the only one to relate with the city--that I manage everything and make sure it's done right," says Whittier.
As the inspections office prepared to close, Lee flew into a panic and cornered Norris. "Brent gets down on his hands and knees and grabs his [Norris'] ankles," Whittier says, "and he's going, 'Please, you cannot ... '" (Lee admits going to the inspectors' offices and pleading with them but denies getting down on his hands and knees.)
Lee and Whittier were told that the city manager would have to OK the opening, so Norris and Pettiford went to talk to him while they waited in the inspections office. But it was 5 p.m. and the city manager had left for the day. The assistant manager told them that if there are code violations at NV, the club can't open. Period.
But Lee kept begging, while Whittier tried to negotiate with the inspector. "I said, 'Bobby, please listen to me. This is Brent,'" recalls Whittier. "'He's a local business owner. I'm here to make sure he doesn't do anything way out of control. I want to have a good relationship with you. I'm not begging you--these are legitimate things on the list--you have to do what you do. I'll do everything I can to get these things taken care of.'"
Whittier says Brent promised that things would be taken care of by 10 p.m. It was 5:40; Pettiford agreed to come back at 9:45 p.m. and do a re-inspection.
That Friday, right before the club opened its doors at 10 p.m., Pettiford issued NV a "Temporary Certificate of Occupancy" that listed several problems, none of them major, to fix over the weekend. But Lee again pushed his luck: He concentrated on running the club. Friday was a packed all-ages show and Saturday he brought in a well-known national DJ. By Monday, Lee hadn't fixed any of the problems listed by the inspectors and his temporary permit was revoked. After paying another $50 for a re-inspection, Lee received his occupancy permit on Dec. 6.
NV was up and operating. The club's official capacity is just under 700, with patrons paying $10 for a membership fee plus an admission charge for the evening. Clearly, the club was starting to bring in money. By the end of January, the people who Lee owed--especially the subcontractors who'd worked hard to get his club open early--were getting antsy to settle their unpaid debts.
Lee started paying the people who could "hurt him the most," says Whittier, as well as the people who could physically come and remove gear and furniture from the club.
"If the people Brent owes banded together, they could shut him down or force him into bankruptcy, a scenario where no one gets paid," says Whittier, who--through his construction company--has more than $40,000 riding on Lee's success. As of press time, Lee still owed "around $100,000" to subcontractors, says Whittier.
"A lot of people are unhappy with him; a lot of people are threatening to close him down," says Whittier. "What I did was told him, I will call everybody--which I've done--and negotiate with them so they don't take him to court and bankrupt him, because if he gets bankrupted, then nobody gets paid."
When asked, Lee has his own version of events. "Everybody that I have any sort of money due to is happy with the situation," he states. "All of them understood going in beforehand; there were some individuals that knew, 'Hey. This is the situation, you're basically going to be working ... you'll be paid over time.'" Whittier, however, disputes this, saying not all of the subcontractors knew Lee would wait until the club starting bringing in money before he paid them. Lee won't share details about his debts, saying, "All bills are being paid."
Lee is still talking the good talk. "I think we're on a cusp of a wave--I think this kind of music; it's coming this way," he says. The music at NV certainly lasts longer than at other dance clubs in Chapel Hill (and the Triangle), extending to 3 a.m. most nights and 4 a.m. on Saturdays, serving energy drinks, juices and sodas.
On a recent weekend night, the music's still pumping and the drinks are still flowing. Lee, besides being the "face" of NV--the guy who moves through the crowd and greets clubgoers--says he even takes a turn in the DJ booth now and then. "I do not want this to be a club for me to show off," he demurs. "I spin because I love to spin and I love the music and I love to play with people's emotions."
"That's the thing," continues Lee, "you look down in that pit at that dance floor and, they're not dancing, they're feeling."
Over the dance floor, two huge mirrored disco balls, enhanced by roboscans and a 360-degree MAC spotlight, reflect thousands of multicolored patterns of pulsating, swirling lights (with occasional blackouts and puffs of fog) to create the ambience. The lights are either run from the DJ booth or synched in time to the sound system. People seem awed by the sound, the lights, the technology.
"I wanted to create a place that I would want to go to," says Lee. "There wasn't really anything in this area that appealed to what I wanted, so I basically wanted to create a place for me, believing that people would want the same thing I did. And then they did."
Lee goes on to say, "We try to get people here for the right reasons," then touches on the issue of drugs, which is often lumped in with any late-night club scene. "It's one of those things: If you can be caught, you deserve to be caught. If you're enjoying your drugs comfortably, then ...
"We've had nobody passed out on couches or anything like that, we've had no fights--haven't had a single punch thrown yet. No problems," continues Lee. "We've had one instance of drugs that we noticed in the club, and we immediately confiscated it, kicked them out and turned the drugs over to the police, but other than that, nothing." (A call to Chapel Hill police, however, reveals no record of the transaction. When asked again about the drug incident, Lee claims that is was a "misstatement" on his part.)
Lee, over and over again, is described by those who know him as "driven"--the kind of person who will do what it takes to attain his goals. Settle says of Lee: "He went against a difficult market and many challenges and still persevered in achieving his dream. This is a respectable quality in anyone."
But for A.J. Jourdan, one of the subcontractors hired directly by Lee, the young entrepreneur's cavalier attitude toward settling his debts could be interpreted as good old-fashioned arrogance--a term Jourdan uses a lot when describing his former employer. Owed $6,750, Jourdan met Lee in Hillsborough's small claims court Tuesday, May 7, and received a judgment against Lee for $4,000, the maximum allowed. Lee had no comment, saying he was in a "legal dispute" with Jourdan.
"The same reason he might be successful is the same reason he might be unsuccessful," says Whittier. "He gets in his head the way it's going to be, and that's the way it's going to be."
"Oh god--if I could do it over," says Lee about building the club. "But hindsight's always 20/20. Hopefully, this place is going to be as successful as it has been so far and continue to be, and maybe I'll do another one and another one and another one ... you never know."