Select Lounge struggling after fatal shooting in January

Upscale club on the west side was relatively new to the scene when two were killed outside its doors

February 03, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

The police tape had been removed. The crowds were gone. The parking lot was mainly empty, when once it would have been brimming with shiny, status-symbol cars.

It was midnight on a Friday late last month in the 400 block of Paca St. Under a heat lamp, a bundled-up bouncer waited outside for lines to form, but even that late, no one had or would arrive at Select Lounge.

I asked the bouncer, who declined to give his name, when the club would normally start to fill up.

"Around now, but we had a little incident recently," he said. "Two weeks ago, a man lost his life right there on the parking lot."

The incident he's referring to has since grown into a major police investigation. Early on Jan. 9, five police officers fired a total of 41 shots in response to a chaotic scene that had formed after the club let out. A plainclothes police officer, William H. Torbit, and a 22-year-old civilian, Sean Gamble, were killed, prompting Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to call for an outside agency to review the officers' actions.

Caught in the back-and-forth and the internal investigation is Select Lounge, a club that had been open for about three months when the shooting took place.

Police and the liquor board have not charged the club with any violations. "I really think this was a bizarre and unique incident," said liquor board Chairman Stephan Fogleman.

But even if that's the case, the damage done to the club's image is significant, and it still has a long way to go to recover, if it does at all.

"People will be associating the name of the club with this incident for the foreseeable future," said J. Kirby Fowler Jr., president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

Alex Wolde, one of the owners of Select, acknowledged the obstacles ahead.

Since the shooting, he said several bartenders have quit because they weren't making enough money.

Wolde said he bought the building at 415 N. Paca St. a year ago. He and his wife then bought the liquor license from the Benedictine Society of Baltimore, of all places, in October for $20,000, according to liquor board records.

The building, a former warehouse, was gutted. Wolde said he renovated it with high-end clubs like Red Maple, Eden's Lounge, and Washington's Kstreet Lounge and Shadow Room in mind.

The club is a beautiful space, with wood floors, soft lighting and a long granite bar stocked with six pricey vodkas — including Ciroq, Belvedere and Grey Goose. It also has a private VIP area, a stage that hosts live music and a DJ booth.

But Select's problem was never whether it was good-looking enough. Even before the shooting, it was an outlier, aiming for a high-end clientele that may not exist in Baltimore, and doing so in a neighborhood that is not inviting. The exterior doesn't do it it any favors, either; save for a bouncer, it looks like just another warehouse.

With the shooting, its problems only intensified.

Two weeks after the chaos on Jan. 9, the club was empty save for a handful of people casually dancing to the DJ's top-40 mix. Its runway-like dance floor was so empty that the few patrons there could have swapped shoes for roller skates.

Though there were reservation placards on the booths that line the club's dance floor, Wolde told me it was just to let people know bottle service was available. He wasn't expecting anyone to fill them.

"It's never been like this in three months of being open," he said.

Wolde still refuses to talk specifics about that night. He said he was inside and was as surprised as everyone else at what happened outside.

He strongly defended the club's security and said he was hopeful the lounge can make a recovery.

Fowler, whose organization represents downtown business, was characteristically optimistic. He cited the Velvet Rope, a club that was associated with several violent incidents and then rebranded with the name Dubai, as one that survived.

"No doubt about it — clubs don't want their names associated with an event like this," Fowler said. "It'll be an uphill battle, but other clubs have come back and thrived."

If Select's original plan was to draw "the elite," this week it got a celebrity boost. Def Jam record label founder Russell Simmons hosted a party there Thursday after a local speaking engagement.

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