Poetry Nightclub Redefines David vs. Goliath(s)

It sounds like a scene straight out of the mob flick “Goodfellas:” guests being snuck in through back hallways, blissfully ignoring the back-of-the-house chaos and debris because they were walking a path the hoi polloi only dream about. At the Forum Shops Mall (Caesars Palace), that double-stitched dream has turned into a nightmare for club owner Mike Goodwin. He has become ensnarled in a lawsuit against Caesars Palace and Simon Property Group, which manages the cobble-stone sporting mall that Goodwin’s Poetry Nightclub calls home, alleging the mall and casino property have engaged in ongoing and egregious racial discrimination against Poetry Nightclub and its guests, the majority of which are African-American.

Goodwin has operated in leased space he shares with Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group’s [WPFDG] popular Chinois Restaurant since 2003, when he struck a deal for the second floor of the space that included the ability to operate under the Puck-meister’s liquor license. While Goodwin didn’t open doors with the intent of going after an exclusively upscale urban clientele, he quickly found it to be an underserved market in Las Vegas.  “We saw hip hop being played everywhere but not being promoted anywhere,” he says, “so we decided to make that our niche — a venue that remains true to R&B and hip hop.” Goodwin insists he didn’t go after any particular clientele, but that the hip hop community and subculture embraced what he was doing at the venue, which originally was named OPM. Goodwin responded with a commitment to make his club, “a responsible environment to enjoy that type of music.” And from these early beginnings would grow the most popular and successful upscale hip hop nightclub in the history of Las Vegas.

In 2005, PURE Nightclub opened in the casino portion of Caesars Palace, hell-bent on attracting a celebrity clientele and the beautiful crowd that would spend money to party with the stars. Down the way, OPM was fresh off an incredible opening run that marked packed houses and 18 consecutive incident-free months of operation. Allegedly, the management team at PURE became uncomfortable with customers who didn’t meet its dress code loitering at their entrance and blamed their presence on the hip-hop club operating several hundred yards away. Although Harrah’s Entertainment spokesperson Jacqueline Peterson commented that PURE Nightclub’s presence on property never affected any decisions made in regards to OPM Nightclub, Goodwin believes the PURE team began to assert pressure on Caesars Palace to force Simon Property Group to address the ‘problem,’ down the hall.

In February 2006, a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department sergeant was shot and killed by an aspiring rapper, miles away from the Strip. The response from then-Sheriff Bill Young was a wide-ranging crusade against “gangster rap” and the booking of “gangster rap artists” in Las Vegas casinos and nightclubs. In an editorial that ran in the local Las Vegas Sun newspaper, he wrote that “steering clear” of all things hip-hop was, “a legitimate crime prevention strategy,” and even dredged up the decade-old (and still unsolved, mind you) murder of Tupac Shakur. The editorial, along with a letter penned to Gaming Control Board officials, prompted another meeting. This time, not only were the management and security departments of Simon Property Group involved, but also Gary Selesner, president of Caesars Palace, and representatives from his own security department. According to Goodwin, “the purpose of that meeting was to discuss the different ways we would all work together to create and improve a security system between all parties,” although Goodwin notes that, quixotically, no representative from PURE Nightclub was present, even though their nightlife space has a capacity level that dwarfs OPM’s. When he asked why PURE representatives weren’t present, Goodwin says he was told by Caesars management quite simply, “None of your business.”

It certainly would become his business. The day immediately following that meeting, OPM Nightclub received a cease and desist and eviction notice that, according to Goodwin, said, “they didn’t know who we were or how we were operating a club in their mall.” From there, the battle has continued unabated.

In June 2006, Simon Property Group approached OPM Nightclub and asked its management to close. Goodwin responded: “We are running a good and safe business and have every right to be here.” The mall giant responded with a letter of default to Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, saying they had duped Simon by not telling them they were opening a nightclub within that space and that it wasn’t being run in a first class manner, although Goodwin retorts that until that time, “Simon had been supportive of the opening and had worked with the venue on several events.” If the point of no return had not yet been reached, it would occur in August 2007 when two groups got into an altercation that led to an African-American firing four to six shots across the casino floor, resulting in two injuries. It was around this time that Caesars Palace came up with a method to force OPM out: simply close and lock the doors to the mall at 1 a.m. and make OPM patrons find another way in. One month later, Simon Property Group again joined the skirmish, this time filing a lawsuit against Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group in Delaware stating the nightclub was operating illegally and senior members of WPFDG management had maliciously deceived the mall company.

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