- Associated Press - Friday, May 26, 2017

SOUTHGATE, Ky. (AP) - The pall that has lingered for decades over the remains of the Beverly Hills Supper Club has started to lift, if only a little.

As the 40th anniversary of the fire that claimed 165 lives arrives, local leaders and the owner of the property on which the club once stood said they believe they will soon return this hallowed ground to some use.

A more permanent memorial on the property, they hope, will help.

For a while, the idea of anything going up on the 77-acre site in Southgate seemed a sacrilege to survivors. But that resistance has softened with time, and some survivors have not only accepted something might get built, but think it should.

“It is a special site,” said Walter Bailey of Flower Mound, Texas. He’s the former Beverly Hill Supper Club busboy credited with saving hundreds of lives that night by storming the stage and telling patrons about the fire.

“I feel for anyone that bought it. I hope they can get the best use out it. Letting it sit there with weeds growing doesn’t quite make sense.”

No criminal charges were ever filed in the fire. No one ever was arrested. (The families of victims did win millions through a class action lawsuit filed against aluminum wire makers and utility companies.)

The honeysuckle-covered hillside in Southgate betrays little of its once-glamorous and tragic past. It was billed as “The Nation’s Showplace,” a place where A-listers, such as Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante, performed.

A crumbled driveway pummeled by 40 years of weather and neglect leads up to a grove of honeysuckle and young trees. It’s private property with no trespassing signs, but it’s clear there have been visitors.

A decade ago, silverware, serving trays and old bottles lay scattered on the ground. Much of that is gone. Instead, signs nailed to trees along a path show where rooms of the supper club stood, where the fire started and where most of the people died.

On the other side of the grove is a makeshift statue of Jesus, with outstretched arms, balancing precariously on hill’s edge. A crude wooden box with a hinge holds a moldy American flag and a book listing the 165 victims, their ages and where they were from.

“After 40 years, it’s time,” said Southgate Mayor Jim Hamberg about the permanent memorial.

Nonprofit retirement community organization Life Enriching Communities, the owner of the land, sent an agreement to the City of Southgate this month to deed about one acre of land to the city to honor the victims. The details have yet to be worked out, Hamberg said.

“(Potential developers) don’t know enough about our community to know whether the move would be well-received,” said Pendery. “I think those fears would be put to rest if there’s a memorial.”

But a memorial doesn’t make development imminent. There are hurdles that some say are even bigger than the site’s history, such as cost, topography and zoning.

Ideas for what to do with the land began immediately, said Ken Paul, who was mayor of Southgate in 1977 when the fire happened.

But cost often stood in the way. And as the property sold, the value of the land went up, Paul said.

“I think, from the understanding I’ve had from people that own the property, they’re not in any squeeze to have to sell it,” Paul said. “They’ll only sell it if it made a profit.”

At the time of the fire, Beverly Hills Supper Club owner Rick Schilling had plans for a hotel and convention center at the site. Another developer bought the property in 1979 with plans for a hotel, but couldn’t find the money to build it, according to Enquirer archives.

Public opposition nixed a $90 million plan in 1996 for two six-story office towers and more than 480,000 square feet of retail space.

The current owner, a nonprofit, bought the property in 2001 for $3.65 million with the hopes of building a retirement community.

Southgate City Council wants tax revenue from the site’s use. So they denied a zone change to alter its commercial use designation.

LEC gets inquiries periodically from developers, said Jon Homer, director of business development for LEC. Why haven’t they sold it? Not a priority, said Homer.

Many have often touted the site as one of the most desirable commercial properties in the region. It’s 3.5 miles from downtown Cincinnati along Interstate 471. But only 35 of the 77 acres can be developed due to terrain and access to utilities, said Dan Tobergte, president of economic development agency Northern Kentucky Tri-Ed.

So what should go on the site of the nation’s third deadliest nightclub fire?

Professional offices, medical center, restaurants, hotels would be nice, some have said. Survivors of the fire, such as Bailey, have said they would like a park.

“I don’t want it to turn into a mall,” fire hero Bailey said. “I don’t want it to stay there untouched. There’s got to be something in between. Whatever they do to it, they need to have respect for what happened there.”


Information from: The Kentucky Enquirer, https://www.nky.com

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