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Redefining Underground

Will Underground Atlanta's latest turn of fate come too late?

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When the peach drops at Underground Atlanta this Sunday night, it will mark two years since a new lineup of nightclubs and restaurants was heralded as a turning point for the ailing downtown mall.

Since then, the news has been mostly bad. Of the six clubs that debuted in time for New Year's Eve 2004, only one is still open. Some of the clubs have changed hands -- and concepts -- several times to little avail. Other spaces in the forlorn Kenny's Alley remain vacant. Next month, Underground's designated sports bar, Triple Play, will be hanging up its jersey for good.

But a few club owners might have figured out the key to turning a club in Kenny's Alley into a success story, and it doesn't involve rocket science. It basically comes down to: less Skynyrd, more Ciara; less John Mayer, more John Legend. In other words, target the buppies, not the burbs.

"I see Underground Atlanta as a gold mine," says Krista Gable, owner of the House nightclub, "but it's definitely an urban scene."

A first-time club owner, Reese is quick to admit it took her a while to figure out that her downtown location appeals to a predominantly black clientele.

"When we opened, we tried to draw a mixed crowd with theme nights and it didn't work at all. I lost a whole lot of money for the first six months," following the club's opening last New Year's Eve, she says.

Reese switched to a hip-hop playlist, added VIP areas and champagne bars, and watched the business roll in, she says. Most Friday and Saturday nights, there's a line of people waiting to get into her House.

Downstairs, on the Alley's lower level, nightclub veteran Tom Cook is one of five partners who recently opened Sugar Hill, a club specializing in live contemporary R&B and neo-soul. Cook, who also co-owns Earthlink Live, says he was confident that Underground would make an ideal location for a venue aimed at black professionals.

"It would be nice to think that Underground could eventually become a more integrated environment, but the last few attempts to market it to a primarily white crowd haven't worked," Cook says.

Cook and his partners are so confident of Underground's untapped potential that they have agreed to lease another space in Underground -- the cavernous, high-ceilinged nightclub that once housed the momentarily hot Latin Sol. They'll keep the name of the spot's last occupant, Motion, and hope to revive a Latin dance night. But mainly, the club will target an upscale African-American clientele -- although, Cook says, "It's safe to say we won't be going for the crunk crowd."

For many observers -- and some club owners -- the move to bring in black-oriented nightlife represents a U-turn for Underground, whose 2004 lineup included a fetish club, a gay cabaret, a salsa club and a karaoke bar.

"There was never any secret that they didn't want hip-hop," says Andrew Adler, co-owner of the Alley Cat rock 'n' roll restaurant, which closed earlier this year.

And Reese says she encountered heavy resistance when she first announced her club's format change from Top 40 to hip-hop. "It got ugly there for a minute," she says.

Dan O'Leary, general manager of the private company that runs Underground, bristles at the suggestion that black clubs haven't been welcome in the past. In fact, he says, he had courted the owners of Vision, which drew a heavy African-American crowd, to open a club in the Alley.

"We don't have a plan to target a certain segment of the population," he says. "We're simply looking for the best operators we can find."

Any discussion over format change is done to ensure fair competition among tenants, O'Leary says.

Cook says he's encountered no hesitancy regarding his format plans, and Reese is hopeful that more club openings will lure the urban crowd in on weeknights as well as weekends.

But the recent upswing in Kenny's Alley may be too little, too late for some City Council members.

A November study by the city's finance department predicts a dismal future for Underground once the World of Coke moves to its new location at Centennial Park next year.

Underground has long been a drain on city coffers, but the city's annual subsidy could soon jump from about $7.7 million to north of $12 million, the study suggests.

Currently, Underground's net operating income is on a serious downward slide, with most of its revenue coming from the parking decks, the study indicates. Only a tiny sliver of income is generated from Kenny's Alley; several tenants are paying "little or no rent," according to the study.

The study finally recommends that the city audit Underground's financial books and look into redeveloping the site as something other than an urban mall. That option appeals to Councilman Caesar Mitchell, who wants the city to consider mixed-use development with housing -- and maybe even casino gambling.

"I think it'll take a radical change in order to keep that property moving forward and put it on a sound financial footing," he says.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misidentified the owner of the House nightclub; her correct name is Krista Gable.

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