After being formally charged Oct. 26 for selling cocaine to an undercover police officer last year, getting a nightclub up and running might be the least of Travis Dibben’s worries. Still, a number of people are counting on the developer of the Nine of Clubs comedy club to move forward with his plans.
Dibben signed a lease for his club and restaurant startup for an undisclosed amount in July, securing 6,700 square feet at the long-vacant $12 million College Station development, 420 W. College St. Dibben is the first tenant to sign a lease at College Station since the anchor, Hollywood Theaters, opened in fall 2008.
James Medlock, co-owner of the Steak-Out delivery franchise on East Chestnut Expressway and a partner with Dibben to provide food service at Nine of Clubs, said it was hard to learn of the charges.
“He actually stopped in to see me and tell me about it the day before it came out in the press,” Medlock said. “What I told him at the time was that it was just a lot to soak in. … I’m not at all the only person who has a vested interest in this project.”
Medlock said originally he and his business partner, Jeff Prantl, were just going to provide catering during club hours, but in time, the project’s plans grew to include a full-service, sit-down restaurant.
Medlock and Steak-Out Chief Operating Officer Peter Petrosian said the company is planning to hold up its end of the agreement with Dibben, who has set a Dec. 2 opening date.
“We were contracted to design the culinary part of the kitchen and restaurant system, and we are on schedule and are looking forward to its opening,” Petrosian said. “We’ll be on schedule as long as the construction is on schedule.”
Dibben pleaded not guilty to charges that he sold 2.52 grams of cocaine to an undercover cop in a South National Avenue Braum’s Ice Cream & Dairy parking lot in March 2010. He is not speaking to the media on the advice of his attorney, Stuart Huffman of Whiteaker & Wilson PC. Dibben is currently on felony probation, having previously pleaded guilty to three felony charges in Greene County for passing bad checks, stealing by deceit and receiving stolen property.
While Huffman maintains Dibben is committed to opening the club in December, project partner Medlock has doubts.
“We don’t naively think that the thing is going to open on time,” he said.
College Station developer Scott Tillman, who is involved in the construction of the club, did not return calls for comment.
Dibben also has learned recently that the city of Springfield is holding on to the second half of a $95,000 loan he was approved to receive through the city’s Business Incentives Loan Program. To date, Dibben has received $44,221, but the city has halted loan disbursement following Dibben’s arrest, according to a Frequently Asked Questions document the city created concerning the Nine of Clubs venture.
According to the document, Dibben presented an “excellent business plan” that included investment by Tillman and the partnership agreement with Steak-Out. At the time the city loan committee approved the deal Aug. 25, the committee was aware of the recent judgments against Dibben but unaware of the undercover investigation involving Dibben and his brother. The FAQ also noted Dibben did not disclose that he was on probation to the committee.
According to Huffman, Dibben should be able to move forward even if he doesn’t receive the rest of the loan amount.
Huffman was unclear whether the city had the right to withhold part of that loan.
“None of the original paperwork addresses this kind of situation,” he said, adding he was investigating the matter.
Calls to Springfield Economic Development Director Mary Lilly Smith and city attorney Dan Wichmer were not returned by press time.
Huffman said there were no plans at this time to alter the ownership structure of the Nine of Clubs venture, but that could change if the Missouri Department of Liquor Control denies Dibben’s liquor license. The city rescinded its letter recommending approval of the state license.
To sell alcohol at the club, Dibben must receive license approval from the city, county and state. City officials plan to hold a liquor license hearing, though a date has yet to be set, according to Huffman. Though Dibben is on probation, Huffman said Dibben can be around liquor, but under the terms, he cannot possess or consume alcohol, and he can’t frequent an establishment where alcohol is the primary item for sale.
Sperry Van Ness/Rankin Co. senior adviser Tim Roth, the leasing agent for College Station, said it was too soon to say whether the lease could be voided in light of Dibben’s circumstances.
“We would like to have a tenant there, obviously. Travis has a legal binding contract with College Station. I just don’t know how this affects everything,” Roth said.
Roth said he was unaware that Dibben was currently on probation.
“Our company did not do a criminal background check. It is not something we do on a regular basis,” Roth said.
Kirk Heyle, owner of Heyle Real Estate and Consulting Services LLC, said he has been in the real estate business since 1974, and he routinely performs background checks on potential tenants.
“We go to Case.net with our residential tenants every time. If there is something there that makes us a little queasy or is questionable, then we would on a commercial tenant, too,” Heyle said.
He added that while established companies might not be scrutinized, he always checks with individuals to see if they have good banking, credit and vendor references. And if the potential tenant is starting a business, or has had a failed business in the past as Dibben did, that would be a red flag calling for further investigation.
“I don’t want to be critical of the broker or the city, but that’s just standard operating procedure to check out credit references and business references – always,” Heyle said.
For now, Steak-Out’s Medlock hopes Dibben and company can sort out the criminal charges and their impact on his business plan.
“My opinion is: You guys sort it all out, and we’ll do the food.”[[In-content Ad]]