Saturday, January 18, 2003

Theater plan may be all a stage

City fell for charm with thin support

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] The vacant Empire Theater building at 1521 Vine St. in Over-the-Rhine.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
It was a fairy tale story, casting LaShawn Pettus-Brown as Cinderella and Cincinnati's Empire Theater as the glass slipper.

Six City Council members, Mayor Charlie Luken, high-ranking state officials and others were so enthralled by his local-kid-makes-good story that they approved $220,000 in city grants for his plan to convert the Empire into a Vine Street nightclub.

The 26-year-old professional basketball player and Taft High School graduate had returned to his hometown with an ambitious $1 million plan to fix up the 89-year-old theater.

And he came just in time.

The 2001 riots and the poor economy had all but halted development on Vine Street, which Mayor Charlie Luken called "the most important street in the city."

Mr. Pettus-Brown, who is African-American, bucked a boycott of downtown by promoting a Soul Festival at the U.S. Bank Arena last July.

With his broad smile and contagious enthusiasm, he won over officials desperate for investment on Vine Street.

"Part of what made this project a good story from the start was that it was a way to get people excited about Vine Street," said Community Development Director Peg Moertl. "He was just so ... public with everything."

City Council voted 6-2, with Republicans dissenting, to approve a "forgivable loan" for the rehabilitation.

At first, the project seemed to be going well. Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell and Rose Vesper, the governor's regional development representative, attended a ribbon cutting.

"He came from a family that struggled. He was bright, worked hard and got a scholarship to Dayton," said Ms. Vesper. "All he wanted to do was try to make a difference and give back to the community."

He spent $184,217 before the city stopped the checks in September.

Wednesday, with little evidence of progress, the city asked for its money back.

Friday, they were left only with a cold trail of disconnected phone numbers and contradicted stories.

Trent Stewart remembers talking to his friend from the University of Dayton about fixing up the Empire Theater.

That was a year ago.

"Nothing ever manifested from that. I haven't spoken to him in months," he said.

But when Mr. Pettus-Brown submitted a business plan to the city, he listed Mr. Stewart as a "managing director" of Pettus-Brown Inc.

That's just one example of how thin Mr. Pettus-Brown's initial 18-page business plan was when he sold Cincinnati City Council on fixing up the theater.

"It was kind of a tricky proposition in the first place and there wasn't much of a resume," said Councilman Jim Tarbell, who opposed the grant but was absent the day of the vote. "Things were so anxious to try to get going, and the Empire was looming so prominently as an opportunity, that we just got ahead of ourselves."

Mr. Tarbell has managed well-known nightclubs and restaurants for 30 years - some more successfully than others. The business plan, which predicted a $1 million profit in its first year, was unrealistic, he said.

Danielle M. Stinson, listed as the company's chief administrator, told the Enquirer via e-mail, "I've not heard from Mr. Brown since before the holidays, and am trying to locate him myself."

Before leaving town in December, Mr. Pettus-Brown told city officials he was returning to play basketball in Japan, where he was once leading scorer for the Toyota-Tsusho Fighting Eagles.

League officials in Japan said Friday that his contract expired at the end of last season. Fighting Eagle coaches Yukiko Mori and Hiromichi Toinaga said they haven't seen him in about a year. They said the numbers they had for him no longer work.

Phone numbers for Mr. Pettus-Brown's company in Japan have been disconnected.

Other officers in Mr. Brown's company couldn't be reached, and the academic credentials Mr. Pettus-Brown listed for his business partners and associates don't check out:

Managing director Shalini Radha is listed as a 1996 graduate of the University of Sydney, Australia. The university said it has no record of a graduate by that name.

Vice president and chief operating officer Jeremiah Tardy is described as a 1990 graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles. The registrar there could not verify he was a student.

Contacted at his San Bernardino, Calif., home, Mr. Tardy confirmed that he never attended UCLA. He also said that he hasn't heard from Mr. Pettus-Brown in six months and has no connection to the Empire project.

"He gave me that title over the phone. I didn't sign anything and there's nothing in writing." Mr. Tardy said. "That's what he chose to label me. But I haven't done any vice-president duties."

Robert Anglen contributed to this report. E-mail .

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