03/25/07 — 15,000-square-foot club planned on line

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15,000-square-foot club planned on line

By Lee Williams
Published in News on March 25, 2007 2:16 AM

A plan to build a 15,000-square-foot amusement center on N.C. 55 West and Jerusalem Road has some residents concerned.

Some fear the facility, which will feature a nightclub, pool, video games, event space, soccer fields and a go-cart track, could bring crime, noise and traffic to the area dotted with farmhouses, fields, trees, turkey houses, horses, goats and steers.

"I bought this place 20 years ago to get some peace and quiet, and now that's not going to happen," said Betsy Newcomb, 54, who lives by Club 55 El Abuelo, which means "the grandfather" in Spanish. "It's not a good thing. I feel like the neighbors should have been notified."

The club's developer, Randy Mills, 48, of Goldsboro, received approval last March from the Lenoir County Planning Board to build the club, which will cater to Hispanic residents, planning board officials said.

The building will hold 834 people and will be built on a 28-acre tract.

Two people, including Robert Mewborn, who was part of the trust that sold Mills the property, and the Rev. Anthony Davis of Jerusalem Free Will Baptist Church, whose church abuts the property, spoke against the project, according to the planning board minutes.

Mewborn told the board he had no objection to the soccer field, go-cart track or other recreational items geared to children, but that he had a problem with the fact that alcohol would be sold on the premises.

"The sale of alcohol never was mentioned," he told the board.

Mewborn said if he and his sisters had known about the alcohol sales, they would not have sold the parcel to Mills.

Davis also objected to the sale of alcohol at Club 55.

He said Jerusalem Free Will Baptist recently completed a $600,000 renovation, and added that he was worried the club could be detrimental to the community.

Some residents are also worried about what effect the club will have on crime in the neighborhood, which has had several problems in the past, according to law enforcement officials.

Blue Martin, 62, who runs Martin's Produce on N.C. 55, has been assaulted several times by thieves at the business that sells grocery and beer. He worries what alcohol and increased traffic will bring.

"I've been robbed twice, beat up and almost killed," he said.

Martin said he and other residents already defeated a similar proposal.

That plan, proposed by a different developer, featured soccer fields, basketball courts, a playground and a 20,000-square-foot community building that would be used for special events and include a store that would sell clothing, food, refreshments and alcohol. A mobile home and auto sales lot would also have been housed on the property, said Doug Coffey, who pitched the idea to the planning board last May.

"We got this one knocked out because we knew about it, but this one slipped by us," Martin said. "I blame the planning board."

Lenoir County planner Wayland Humphrey said he only has to notify adjacent property owners. Humphrey sent letters to Robert Mewborn, Ramon and Francisco Venegas, Mateo and Soledad Avilez, Salvador and Rosa Abrego and Jason and Melissa Sanford about the public hearing concerning Mills' request.

He said he also advertised the public hearing for the amusement center in a local newspaper. He did not provide a specific date.

Humphrey also stated he shared with the board that Mills' proposal was not consistent with the county's Future Land Use Plan.

But not everyone is ready to scrap the new club, which is still under construction.

Donna Hardy, who lives near Club 55, said she is concerned about the project, but she plans to keep an open mind.

"I hope it would improve our local economy," Mrs. Hardy said. "I'm afraid it can be detrimental to the economy and land values, but if it's handled correctly, it could start up some more businesses. If it's going to be here anyway, let's hope it's going to be a boon to this rural area."

But Maidie Davis, who lives in the area, doesn't hold the same view.

"We're just afraid of what it's going to bring to the community," said Mrs. Davis, 54. "I'm really afraid of the drinking, loud music, fights, traffic problems, people parking all over the road, trash and the noise factor."

Sheriff's officials say they will keep an eye on the club once it opens its doors. A grand opening date has yet to be determined.

Lenoir County Sheriff Billy Smith said his deputies recently had to close down Smitty's, a popular night club that catered to African-Americans, due to the number of violent crimes logged at the business.

If there is an issue at Club 55, he's ready to take action.

"I do foresee a problem," Smith said. "The public nuisance law is on the books, and if we have to close it, we will, just like we did Smitty's."

Wayne County Sheriff Carey Winders said he is concerned about the increased traffic and crime that might spill over into his county. He added that soccer fields and alcohol don't mix.

"When there's alcohol and soccer, there's usually trouble," he said. "Undoubtedly, we will feel some results from the club."

Winders said he plans to set up a mutual aid agreement with the Lenoir County Sheriff's Office to deal with the problem should there be increased calls in the area.

He said he also will set up license checks near the club on the Wayne County line to deter club-goers from drinking and driving.

Some say Club 55 was built in Lenoir County because it's unlawful to sell beer in unincorporated portions of Wayne County.

Smith said Lenoir County should consider adopting the same policy.

"I could care less if we ever saw another can of beer," he said. "I think it causes more problems. I wish it would be a dry county like Wayne."