Can County Squeeze in an Empire? : Nightclubs: Costa Mesa building is all dolled up and open for business. But some wonder where the customers will come from.

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They've got grand style and plenty of attitude. They've got everything you'd ever want to cram into one evening--from fashionable cuisine to celebrity deejays to billiards at $12 an hour--not to mention valet parking.

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They've got fabulous-sounding names such as Metropolis, Roxbury and Bacchus, along with a clientele touted by their owners as upscale. They are the super-clubs of Orange County and, in less than two years, they've become as trendy as shiny Harleys and boxing aerobics.

Though it dates back to 1990 with the Shark Club and the now-defunct NYC, both in Costa Mesa, it took until late 1992 for the super-club concept to really take off. After NYC unceremoniously shut its doors that year, the Shark Club's owners opened Metropolis in Irvine to so much fanfare that it seemed like the start of a new chapter in the county's nightclub history.

Since then, a string of super-duper nightclubs have opened, all vying for the same patronage and offering similar amenities in a glamorous setting. Joining the pack over the weekend was the Empire Ballroom, an 18,000-square-foot former factory in Costa Mesa where $3 million was spent on renovations to turn it into what a spokesman describes as "a New York-style club."

Many of those in and behind the scenes say the burgeoning fad of slick, big city-style clubs represents a turning point for a county still developing its cultural base. But considering the current economic climate, can Orange County sustain another super-club?

"I think O.C. is getting way overbuilt with nightclubs," said Roxbury's Elie Samaha. "There's not enough people here to fill these kind of clubs."

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He and his brother, Demitri, opened a version of their trendy Hollywood club in Santa Ana in March, 1993. The two-story building includes everything from a live music bar to a plush VIP lounge. Theater will be added to the bill soon, said Samaha. Experimental works will be showcased before the dance areas open for the night.

"You have to be very competitive in this recession," he added.

Wooing scenesters week after week, however, is tougher in these parts no matter how many thrills are packed under one roof.

Jamie Date, a former manager with Roxbury and Newport Beach's Bacchus, blames it on a "market that is not as educated in club life as in Europe, L.A. or New York."

"People there go out at 11 at night and stay out until 4 in the morning. And they're used to spending a lot of money. Here, the social bit lasts only a couple of hours. To run with the rats you have to go to bed early."

It takes more than a strong weekend and pricey cocktails for these mega-clubs to stay in business, Date said. Although Thursdays tend to prove successful for many clubs, getting local party animals to come out to play en masse during the week has become a Darwinian challenge of the fittest.

"It's going to be survival of who has the most financial backing," Date said.

Besides the multimillion-dollar face lift, the backers of the new Empire Ballroom shelled out an undisclosed amount for the 2 1/2 acres the building sits on, off 17th Street, near Superior Avenue and Newport Boulevard.

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An even greater secret is who is funding it all. The club's co-managers, Gregg Mullholand and Mike Tuomisto, adamantly refuse to reveal the owner's name, and public records list only a corporate title of the Empire Club of Costa Mesa. (Joel Liebke appears on the form filed in late 1992 for a fictitious name with the county, but Tuomisto insists his involvement ceased soon after.)

Even though Mullholand and Tuomisto (who was a partner at NYC) conceived the idea for the club two years ago and have been a guiding force since then, they deny any personal financial investment in the project.

But the two did scout the site. They could have taken Tuomisto's former NYC space, only a short walk away from Empire's location and on the greater-traveled Newport Boulevard, but, "We wanted to create a new energy and excitement that comes with a new building," Tuomisto said.

Corrugated shacks once dotted the dusty lot, housing an estimated 70 vagrants, according to Tuomisto. A 200-space parking lot now covers much of the area.

"We cleaned up a real eyesore for the city," he said.

The graffiti-covered walls of the old plastics factory have been sandblasted, dividing walls erected and new plumbing installed. The club itself will occupy 13,000 square feet of the building, with the other 5,000 reserved for storage and office space.

Hatch Design's Rick McCormick was enlisted to reinvent the gutted shell. The Costa Mesa firm gave Metropolis and the Shark Club their gorgeous combination of Baroque-meets-industrial interiors. It also happens that McCormick's first nightclub design job was NYC.

For the Empire Ballroom, the theme is a modern take on the run-down factory look so popular in cosmopolitan urban nightclubs.

"It's basically taking an old industrial building and giving it a new use," McCormick said. "It's another form of recycling. The building has many characteristics that are hard to find in Orange County because everything here is so new."

In any case, the Empire serves a "a feast for the senses," Mullholand said, complete with male and female go-go dancers. "This is going to be a true dance club. The first of the hard-core dance clubs since NYC closed."

Whether hard-core in such a grand setting means major attitude is yet to be seen. A dress code will be enforced, so leave the sneakers and shorts at home. Hot pants are OK. Baseball caps depend on the rest of the ensemble.

"If it's worn with an Armani suit then it's fine. But worn with jeans and a T-shirt, no," Tuomisto said, adding that it's not an issue of being snobby. "If people don't meet the dress code, they can stand there all night long. People just seem to be on better behavior when they get dressed up."

Added Mullholand: "We're going to be upscale, but not expensive."

Still, expect a $7 cover charge.

The buzz among club owners and promoters concerns whether Empire Ballroom can bring in the close to 1,000 patrons needed to fill the place, which is open only Thursday through Saturday from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.

The club plays house music exclusively--a category that weekend clubbies here tend to handle in only small doses, as club operators have already found. House-music fans usually are limited to weekday installations like Tuesday at Metropolis or Thursday at the Shark Club, where owners John and Gregg Hanour can be counted among the devoted.

"I love house, but we found that it just doesn't have a broad appeal for the weekend crowd," said Gregg Hanour. "My guess is that (the Empire Ballroom) won't be doing only house music after the initial excitement of a new club wears off."

Indeed, time will tell whether the latest in the county super-clubs can truly build an empire from house tunes and staying open only three nights a week. Its predecessors have already learned that it takes a little bit of everything a load of creativity to entice the fashionable twenty- and thirtysomethings of this county to keep coming back.

"Who's really benefiting is the customer, which is what's supposed to happen," Hanour said.

* RISKY BUSINESS: House music is a gamble for Empire Ballroom. See OC Live!, page 7.

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