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VOL. 122 | NO. 94 | Tuesday, May 22, 2007

When it Comes To Cooper’s Proposed Restaurant, Questions Abound

By Andy Meek

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HARBINGER OF DOOM?: The restaurant strip club mogul Steve Cooper is developing in Cordova is close to being finished. -- Photo By Andy Meek

Judging by his living circumstances alone, it would be difficult to argue the topless club business has been anything less than wildly profitable for Steven Craig Cooper.

Cooper, reportedly a high school dropout and later a self-made entrepreneur who built a network of successful adult entertainment clubs, splits his time between Phoenix and Memphis. The Bluff City is where he keeps a nine-room stucco home in an upscale neighborhood that currently is appraised at more than $700,000.

Cooper also owns a $3 million pad in Arizona, set among a row of ritzy homes that winds around the Arizona Biltmore Golf Course and part of an exclusive enclave celebrities such as radio broadcaster Paul Harvey also call home.

Cooper formerly was a business partner of Ralph Lunati, long considered the king of the hill in Memphis' strip club industry. All of which, and more, are reasons why Cordova residents are skeptical when the businessman who's made millions operating strip clubs across the country says the upscale restaurant he's building in their neighborhood is just that - a restaurant.

Restaurant? They think not

A few features of Cooper's Cordova project haven't been widely publicized - and, while not definitive in and of themselves, raise still more questions about his intent for the property.

Cooper is building what purports to be an Italian eatery - "La Italiano," as the sign posted in front of it reads - on a nearly 8-acre site on Fischer Steel Road. Schematics filed with the Memphis-Shelby County Office of Construction Code Enforcement depict a restaurant measuring just shy of 12,500 square feet.

It will include two bars, a banquet room, murals on the walls and two round fountains in front of the restaurant building. Cooper hired an Arizona architect to craft the plans. News reporters lately have been invited inside the square building that resembles a warehouse at 7955 Fischer Steel Road to see everything for themselves.

"It's a restaurant - it's on the permits, that's what (the city-county Office of Planning and Development) approved out there," said Memphis attorney Rex Brasher, who's long represented Cooper. "It's an Italian restaurant. That's all it is."

The possibility of a bait-and-switch at the property, though, has caught fire among nearby residents because of the obvious elements of the situation. Cooper's background is well known, and the property's current zoning - light industrial - could allow adult entertainment.

The old bait and switch?

The project manager for Insomnia Inc., the entity listed as the property owner, has given recent interviews attempting to mollify fears over the building's appearance. One point of concern from nearby residents is the building's apparent lack of windows - some restaurants don't have them, but all strip clubs generally don't.

The reason they weren't included, project manager Dave Rogers said, is that the view outside isn't ideal for a restaurant patron. But while such concerns deal with the more physical elements of Cooper's latest real estate investment, some behind-the-scenes features of the project raise other questions.

Cooper, for example, is pursuing a lawsuit against both Memphis and Shelby County governments as well as the city-county Land Use Control Board (LUCB). The Cordova property, some of which is overgrown with weeds and not wholly visible from Germantown Parkway, is at the center of that suit.

The LUCB heard an application from Cooper in March 2005 to subdivide the roughly 8-acre site. In certain cases, if a property owner intends to develop more than one primary use at a site - for example, a restaurant and an adjacent nightclub, as Cooper has proposed - the property must be subdivided.

Board members, instead, asked Cooper to resubmit his proposal as a planned unit development - the primary difference being that local planners could add restrictions on uses of the property, such as adult entertainment.

Cooper refused, court documents state, apparently on the assumption he was being asked unfairly to make the change because of his background. He filed a lawsuit in September 2005 challenging the LUCB's rejection of his proposal.

"The rejection of Insomnia's application and the decision to require it to resubmit its application as a planned development was predicated in substantial part on the fact that one of Insomnia's owners has interests in lawful adult entertainment businesses ... and to prevent the possibility that Insomnia or its successors might attempt to use the property to present adult entertainment," Cooper's attorneys wrote.

The suit was dismissed in December by U.S. District Court Judge J. Daniel Breen. It's now on appeal to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

If it quacks like a duck ...

Meanwhile, to some of those on the other side of the issue, such as attorneys and local code enforcement officials, the court battle is essentially a question of, "If you're building what you say you're building, why not acquiesce?"

At least two city-county officials with knowledge of the suit said they believe Cooper could only have one purpose in filing the suit - namely, because he envisions making the bait-and-switch to adult entertainment. In addition, Cooper's co-plaintiff in the suit, Nick Fergis, was identified during the proceedings as possessing, like Cooper, interest in several adult-oriented clubs around the country.

Speculation likely will continue surrounding the property until the first Italian dishes are served, perhaps even beyond. Lately, members of the Shelby County Commission have been talking up the possibility of a resolution to limit adult businesses with Cooper's Cordova property in mind.

"I go by there on my way to lunch every now and then to keep an eye on it," said Allen Medlock, head of the city-county Department of Construction Code Enforcement, about the property. "They've still got a ways to go."

PROPERTY SALES 36 154 6,546
MORTGAGES 34 94 4,129
BUILDING PERMITS 201 554 15,915
BANKRUPTCIES 43 126 3,396