When six new nightclubs make a splashy New Year's Eve debut at Underground Atlanta in conjunction with the annual Peach Drop, there won't be a casino among them. But there'll be a whole lot of gambling going on.
For Underground's management team, which has struggled for years to pull the ailing urban mall out of the red, the nightclub rollout is the focal point of a high-stakes attempt to reinvent the venue as a nighttime destination.
City Hall, which owns Underground and has spent millions in tax dollars to keep it afloat since its reopening in 1987, likewise is betting that a rejuvenation of Underground would give downtown Atlanta's slowly building nightlife scene a much-needed boost -- and allow the mall to be weaned off the public teat.
But perhaps the high roller with the most at risk is nightclub entrepreneur Dean Riopelle, who is getting ready to open two of the new clubs at Underground and has a financial stake in two others.
In the last year, Riopelle closed the doors on his decade-old, S&M-themed dance club, the Chamber; announced that he's planning to relocate the gothic, live-music landmark the Masquerade to the 'burbs; and opened a family-friendly entertainment complex in Alpharetta called Paradise City. But the Underground Atlanta venture will be Riopelle's biggest gamble to date.
Like many Atlanta club owners, he feels as if last January's citywide rollback of bar hours from 4 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. has made opening a new nightclub inside city limits a bad bet -- unless, Riopelle believes, that club is located in Underground Atlanta, where those restrictive rules don't apply.
"There are a lot of club genres, especially a dance club, that need a late-night crowd," he says. If you want to tap into Atlanta's late-night audience, he says, Underground is now the only game in town.
Thanks to its designation as Georgia's sole "special entertainment district," the advantages that Underground offers certainly set it apart from any other corner of the city: Bars can keep pouring until 4 a.m. and serve drinks on Sunday. On weekends, customers can stroll from one club to the next with cocktails in hand without concern for the city's open-container laws. You can even buy bottles of booze on the Sabbath at Underground -- provided you're satisfied with a North Georgia Chardonnay from the Habersham Winery boutique.
And because the nightclubs are all under one roof -- in Kenny's Alley on Underground's lowest level, to be exact -- customers won't have to fork over a day's wages in cover charges to go club-hopping. Underground patrons will have to show an ID and pay $5 to enter the complex but will receive a voucher toward their first drink at any of the clubs -- an effort to keep out the riffraff while keeping down costs for paying customers, Riopelle explains.
The final ace in Underground's hand is parking. Underground controls two on-site parking decks, where customers can park all night for $3, free from booters and the kind of price gouging that occurs only a few blocks away, around the Tabernacle and Philips Arena. And, of course, Underground is connected directly to the Five Points MARTA station.
At 40,000 square feet, the largest of the new clubs will be Latin Sol. Designed by the same team that envisioned Vision, the Latin dance club will boast an eight-piece house band, moveable stage and a high-tech lighting system. Future, which Riopelle describes as "the offspring of the Chamber," will try to duplicate that club's gothic, industrial atmosphere with a high-energy dancefloor and a second floor reserved for S&M lifestylers -- and those who dress like them.
Riopelle is also launching Charlie Brown's Cabaret, a club dedicated to the local drag performer who's been searching for a permanent venue since the closing this summer of Backstreet. The club will have a continuous drag show from 11 p.m. till 3 a.m. nightly.
Riopelle also has a chunk of the smaller Island Oasis, which he touts as a "chill-out bar" with acoustic music and show bartenders. Then there's Alley Cat, a hard-rock club with live bands, where waitresses will sport kitty-cat outfits. The final new club is Jamaica Jamaica, a restaurant bar with live reggae.
Two of Underground's existing bars -- Irish Bred Pub and Koco's, a Latin-themed karaoke restaurant -- will remain. Blues in the Alley closed this summer after its owner, DeKalb County Commissioner Lou Walker, was killed in a car accident.
"To me, the best thing going on down here is the diversity of clubs," Riopelle says.
But not everyone sees it that way.
"How can Underground Atlanta ignore hip-hop?" wonders Michael Krohngold, owner of Buckhead's Tongue & Groove, who had initially planned to open an urban dance club at Underground but then got cold feet.
While Krohngold says he wishes Underground no ill will, he can't understand why it hasn't made a more visible effort to appeal to black club-goers.
Phillip Boone, who owns Traxx, a Marietta Street dance club that attracts a largely black, gay crowd, goes even further.
"Everyone's expectation is that Underground isn't going to make it because it doesn't reflect Atlanta's need for diversity," he says.
Underground manager Dan O'Leary says it wasn't his intent to "whiten up" Underground, but he doesn't have any immediate prospect of getting a hip-hop club. He's waiting to fill the remaining few club spaces once the first wave of clubs has built up a clientele.
To help make sure that happens, O'Leary's company will spend up to $70,000 over the next six weeks to market Underground as a late-night and weekend destination to folks as far away as Macon and Augusta.
Having the club openings coincide with the Peach Drop should help. Last year, more than 150,000 people showed up for the free New Year's Eve concert and countdown.
And yet, will all of the selling points and New Year's Eve hoopla be enough to lift Underground into the company of Buckhead, Midtown, Virginia-Highland and other, more organically created Atlanta party zones? Can a city-owned shopping mall ever hope to draw folks from, say, Lenny's or the Echo Lounge?
Jason DeLoach, 24, who lives near Little Five Points and hangs out in East Atlanta, says he's willing to give Underground a chance, as long as it isn't "yuppified" or a gangsta scene.
"Everyone's looking for a place to party later," he says.
Even Riopelle concedes that the jury is still out on whether local hipsters will embrace the theme-club formula that Underground represents.
"You're never going to please everyone," he says. "There probably are people who thought the Masquerade wasn't cool anymore a year after it opened. We're all posers in some form."