By Benjamin Leatherman
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Mark Covert, owner of Tempe club Nita's Hideaway, never thought he'd look back with fondness at having a porn shop for a neighbor. He was cordial with the manager of the place, sure, but he threw all-ages rock shows next door what could be less conducive for business than sharing a corner with a smut peddler? Try sharing one with Tri-City Baptist Church.
Covert is attempting to move Nita's, one of the Valley's premier rock venues, into the former Red Mountain Ranch Steakhouse on the corner of Southern and Price in Tempe, right across the street from Tri-City. He needs a new home for the club because the City Council voted two years ago to turn the industrial area where Nita's is currently located into a redevelopment zone. Nita's old home is slated for destruction in 2003.
Covert thought the empty steakhouse would be the perfect new site plenty of parking, close proximity to Loop 101, more than 500 feet from the nearest residences. The real estate agent, though, failed to mention the hornets' nest of reactionary Christians out back and the mandatory weekly inspections by the neighborhood party-pooper patrol. Covert had no idea he was leasing property in the town out of Footloose. Naively, he applied for a use permit in April and began the process of moving his business.
Now a committee of residents and church members organized by Tri-City, waving at last count 688 letters of protest, is on a moralistic crusade to keep Nita's out of its backyard. Mind you, only about 130 people live in the immediate neighborhood around the former steakhouse; the bulk of the other signatures came from churchies who live outside the area.
So don't get it twisted: Although it has learned in recent weeks to focus on technicalities like parking and traffic to hide its true agenda, the opposition is motivated primarily by self-righteous fervor. And so far, its efforts have been frighteningly effective. After listening to lengthy arguments from both sides, the Tempe Planning and Zoning Commission voted six-to-one at its May 14 meeting to deny Nita's a use permit.
Speaking at that meeting, resident Bruce Goldthorp showed his cards when he said, "I like to use the analogy of Al Capone. We got him in jail for tax evasion, and not all of those other colorful things that we know him for. If it takes parking and traffic to stop this, then so be it. . . .It's a shame that society in some way feels a need for this type of entertainment or environment."
After Goldthorp's statement, Commissioner Mike Di Domencio asked, "You mentioned pretty strongly, I got the impression that you don't approve of this use even if it stays in its present location . . .am I correctly paraphrasing how you feel?"
"Yes," Goldthorp answered.
Jerry Tetreau, principal of Tri-City's International Baptist College, referred to Nita's as a "place of iniquity" and asked, "Is it reasonable and prudent to put this type of establishment in an area where we're literally seeking to mold the values of hundreds of young people?"
Although the committee got the vote it wanted, neighbors began fretting over rumors that the City Council was leaning toward granting Covert an appeal. Then Mayor Neil Giuliano sent a public e-mail expressing disappointment at "the comments of some of the neighbors about 'those people' who 'attend that kind of entertainment.'" With the tide shifting against them, the neighbors called an emergency meeting on May 26, two days before Covert was set to make his appeal before the City Council. Since then, Nita's opponents have been singing a noticeably different tune.
Fliers announcing the neighborhood meeting urged committee members to "focus on the issues and not be repetitive" when speaking at the upcoming City Council meeting. "Regardless of our feelings about an establishment that serves alcohol or the type of music performed," it continued, "we cannot condemn this lifestyle or behavior . . .We cannot afford to be perceived as puritans."
Apparently, they also couldn't afford to pack too little firepower. Goldthorp, acting as the meeting's moderator, announced that Tri-City member Nathan Sproul would now be the official spokesman for the committee. Sproul is the former executive director of both the Arizona Christian Coalition and the Arizona Republican Party, as well as the brother of Tri-City pastor Dr. Michael Sproul.
At the May 30 City Council meeting, the opposition yielded its sledgehammer expertly. Neighbors and church members monopolized the microphone for the first dozen or so statements. They hammered on specific concerns of traffic, noise, parking and crime. They presented photos of pro-Nita's graffiti that had appeared in the neighborhood the night before. ("There Goes the Neighborhood!" blared the caption.) Even Goldthorp kept it short and secular. The only indication that a church was even involved were the Tri-City buses shuttling in members every half hour or so.
Sproul closed the opposition's comments by summarizing the committee's newly revised,conspicuously judgement-free position: "I don't doubt that Mr. Covert runs his business with the highest integrity or that Nita's is an establishment the city of Tempe should help. However, I think putting a nightclub in the middle of a neighborhood that's within a quarter-mile of four churches and a couple private schools is not a good fit."
The committee had definitely synchronized its sound bites. Making an about-face from the statements he made to the Commission, Goldthorp echoed Sproul's remarks in an interview with New Times after the City Council meeting.
"For me personally, my concern is that it's not the right fit for the neighborhood," he said. "Nothing against Nita's, nothing against music I was once young and enjoyed music. But we're a small neighborhood; it's very quiet and peaceful here. Adding that much of an unknown to the equation is something I'm not willing to risk."
Covert thinks this new rhetoric is a smokescreen. "They want to say now that their argument has nothing to do with lifestyle, but our belief is that it has everything to do with lifestyle," he says. "The church has a very strong stance against my type of business whether it's a clean business and a good business or not doesn't matter to them. As long as there's alcohol involved, as long as there's dancing involved, smoking, any of the deadly sins, they're opposed to it."
"That's absolutely a red herring," Sproul responds. "If that were the case, then people would be trying to shut down Nita's, period. The folks that are opposed to the application, as a general rule, think that Nita's has been a valued member of the Tempe community, but that it should stay in an appropriate location."
Covert maintains that there are no logical reasons Nita's should not be allowed to move to its new location. "Every concern the neighbors have brought up, my staff and I have already addressed. They worry about the increased traffic on the residential streets; I've consulted city traffic engineers, and they say it won't be a problem. They say we don't have enough parking. We have access to 657 spaces for a 700 capacity club, and we're only required to have 250. Then there's the noise. We have a contract with sound engineers who will make it silent from the outside.
"If common sense were dictating," he adds, "then this would be a perfect location for our business."
Maybe Covert should start looking for a building next to a porn shop.
The Tempe City Council is scheduled to vote on Nita's Hideaway's appeal on Thursday, June 7, at 7:30 p.m.