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Mark Covert, 55, surveys the construction site of what will be the new Nita's, a 14,250-square-foot wooden fortress off Loop 101 at South Price Road and Southern Avenue across town. Work on the place is nowhere near complete, even though the Reverend Horton Heat is scheduled to christen the new stage December 29. But despite the layers of Sheetrock lying in pools of wet concrete and mud spatter on the floor, Covert likes what he sees.
"The need in the community for the venue size is very strong. We need a venue that can not only be big, but also be small."
This is Covert's confusing businessman way of saying that life in the new digs won't be nearly the pain in the ass it is now on the corner of Rio Salado Parkway and McClintock Drive. While the current Nita's does possess a certain charm, with the velvet JFK painting outside the men's room and other kitschy decorations, the place is a mind-bogglingly bad venue for the caliber of talent it was able to attract.
Aggressive promotion made the club a center of the local music scene in the mid-'90s, after it spent two decades solely as a bar. But that notoriety didn't help its crappy appearance. Nita's sits on a blighted industrial road. Its neighbors include a shady-looking motorcycle repair shop, an equally ugly Honda and Acura repair shop, and, more notably, a porn store, the Zodiac Erotic Emporium. The club itself, with a capacity of 225, is so tiny and nondescript that it's almost impossible for the uninitiated to recognize it as a nightclub.
More nightmarish than the cosmetics, however, are the logistics. Parking is an adventure on nights when Nita's hosts shows in its much larger, and much more costly, outdoors area, attracting crowds of nearly 1,500 people. Because the Nita's lot is so inadequate, Covert says he's had to lay out $1,000 a month for an acre-sized dirt parking lot next to the Zodiac with room for 120 cars, $200 a month for another dirt lot around the corner, and $700 a month to the motorcycle shop for space to park his employees and band personnel. And then there's the off-street parking, which, as anyone who's ever attended a concert there can attest, is an adventure.
"We have three security guys who don't do anything but park cars on the street at night . . . I'm paying them $37.50 an hour just so people don't get towed," says Covert. The efforts to keep folks from getting towed for illegal parking -- and the trucks do in fact patrol with a passion -- often means a walk of a half mile or more just to get to the club.
Inside, things aren't much better. The layout resembles a fraternity basement, with a tackily lighted bar, a hideous black fence to keep the drinkers from the nondrinkers, and a lounge with beat-up couches. The stage, with its duct tape-colored curtain, low-hanging lights and amateurish insignia, resembles something you'd see on a community college public affairs program or C-SPAN debate, and not a platform for the likes of punk rockers Supersuckers, who performed earlier this month.
Holding concerts outdoors has been an improvement, but, there, it feels like a parking lot tailgate party and, for beer drinkers confined to the drinkers-only section, the view of the stage is lousy.
Bright Eyes and Sleater-Kinney, two of the country's more vital and enjoyable rock bands, played this shithole? It's tough to fathom.
When Covert approached the city about expanding Nita's in October 2001, he was told the entire block was being razed for a fresh start, and that he had until the end of 2002 to clear out. That led to discussions to reoccupy the former Red Mountain Steakhouse at 3300 South Price, which comes with 650 available parking spaces, a capacity of nearly 1,500, a full-on kitchen, and the potential to hold every show indoors -- a big deal since, as Covert says, the outdoor shows at Rio Salado were costing an additional $3,500 a pop to stage.
But taking over the old steak house, closed since 2000, brought with it a new set of headaches, namely an intense legal battle for permits from the City Council, which were opposed by nearby Tri-City Baptist Church.
Church officials and patrons, fearing the smoking, drinking and supposed chaos a nightclub might inflict on neighborhood children, fought Covert and company furiously, costing Covert $85,000 in legal fees and forcing him to make a number of concessions, including staying closed during lunch and insulating the place against excessive noise.
While Covert won his fight handily this past June, the local God-fearing folk aren't going away. In an October letter to the Tempe Board of Adjustment, Tri-City pastor Dr. Michael Sproul objected to a city decision to allow an outdoor smokers' patio at the nightclub.
"Their action invites extensive observation and scrutiny by their neighbors to insure [sic] that they are keeping the very letter of the law in the area of the Council's stipulations," Sproul writes. Read: Here come the moral police!