Before he became Urban Meyer's business partner, Chris Corso was a controversial Columbus nightclub operator trying to win over city officials to his vision of a lively Downtown.
Editor's note: With Chris Corso in the news again for his latest venture—Urban Meyer's Pint House, a partnership with the former Ohio State football coach—we're revisiting this 2002 feature, which profiled Corso as he made the shift from a controversial nightclub operator into a business insider whose vision of a vibrant Downtown Columbus was embraced by city officials.
It’s 8:30 a.m., way too early for Chris Corso. The nightclub owner is in a conference room at an east-side neighborhood center, sitting at a rectangular table with a doughnut and a cup of coffee in front of him. He’s younger than the other people in the room, but he’s working hard to fit in. He wears a conservative charcoal suit and a simple blue tie. He listens intently to Columbus Communication Relations Commission director James Stowe, and, at the end of the meeting, politely raises his hand and praises a newly established youth orchestra.
Corso, who joined the commission in August, confesses he’s tired after the 90-minute session. He usually starts his day at noon, not at sunrise, and works well past midnight. “Oh, I’m hurting,” he says. “I’m going to pay for this tonight.” But soon he’s shaking hands and doing what he does best: promoting his latest business. He slaps Robert McCallum, the commission’s vice chairman, on the back and invites him to a “professional mixer” later in the day at his clubs on Long Street. Damon's will cater, Corso says. Everyone will be there. “I think I'll go,” McCallum says. Another successful sale.
Five years ago, Corso would have been out of place on a panel with ministers, civil rights leaders and prominent businessmen. And no self-respecting city official would ever socialize at one of his nightclubs. The city considered him a reckless operator, and it tried to shut down his successful but controversial nightclub Red Zone.
But nowadays, the king of Columbus nightlife owns a new title—respectable citizen. In July, he opened the Long Street Entertainment District, a complex of six bars in Downtown Columbus and his most ambitious project yet. The new development attracts thousands every weekend to a once-dying neighborhood and—for the first time in Corso’s career—earns praise from city officials. They call him “cooperative,” “focused,” even “visionary” and hope his success will spread to other corners of Downtown.
How did the bad boy become a golden boy? Corso has matured. He's 31, still a young man, but he already has several clubs under his belt. The city also has changed. Mayor Michael Coleman has made Downtown revitalization a focus of his administration and seems to have concluded that the city must work with Corso and other nightlife specialists to create a vibrant urban center. Whatever the reason, Corso enjoys his new respectability, even the early morning community relations meetings. This is his second one, and he says he's eager to attend more. “I'm learning a lot," he says, clutching a cup of coffee.
Two days later, Corso is in his natural environment. It's 11:30 p.m., and he's walking through the Long Street Entertainment District. About 900 people fill the cavernous complex—the total will double by the end of the night—and Corso seems to know them all. Hip-hoppers, jocks, club kids, sorority girls. Corso looks a bit like a blue-eyed Dave Matthews, and his customers treat him like a rock star, too. Women want a hug. Guys want to shake his hand. Everyone knows his name. Everyone wants face time.
An old friend and employee, Hector Camacho, shows Corso a new pair of sunglasses and asks him what he thinks. Not bad, Corso says. A few minutes later, a young woman corners him in a crowded room. She says she slipped and fell outside on a sidewalk and wants a free drink. Corso obliges. Problem solved. “This doesn't feel like work," he shouts over the rock band Jonzei. “I love to come here. I couldn't think of a better job.
The nightspot covers nearly 25,000 square feet on Long Street east of High. It's open Thursday through Saturday and boasts three patios and six connected clubs, each with a different personality. For the laid-back crowd, there's Fabric Martini Lounge, where women in tight black dresses sip cocktails and listen to light jazz, and Bar Fly, a more stylish version of a sports bar (no Budweiser banners and autographed jerseys on the walls). For the dance crowd, there's Global, the Mambo Room and the International Lounge, each with distinctive music and scenes. Top-40 bands perform in Long Street Live.
Corso and his partner, Mike Gallicchio, say Columbus has nothing else like their latest venture and compare it to such well-known bar districts as the Flats in Cleveland, Fells Point in Baltimore and Station Square in Pittsburgh. Those districts are considerably larger than Long Street, but Corso and Gallicchio do have a point. In Columbus, barhopping usually involves a car ride or two, especially if you want to hit dance clubs. At Long Street, night owls can park their cars once and spend the evening tasting different scenes: Global's trendy house music, International Lounge's hip-hop and reggae and the Mambo Room's pop tunes. Sophisticated stereo equipment assures that music stays in each room.
Long Street tries to reach a broader crowd than Corso and Gallicchio ever targeted before. The pair also developed Red Zone, at Main and Front streets, and Corso was one of four people behind Mekka, which brought the big-city dance club concept to Columbus in 1995. Red Zone and the now-defunct Mekka attracted fashionable electronic-music fans. Long Street wants the glow-stick crowd, too, but also tries to attract sports fans, yuppies and sweatshirt-wearing everyday folks. (There's no dress code at Long Street.) “We have created our own mini-district where anybody and everybody can come down,” says Gallicchio, a former Mekka deejay who concentrates on music while the high profile Corso focuses on business matters. "It's not a niche market at all.”
Indeed, Long Street wouldn't attract such large crowds—6,000 to 8,000 per weekend, larger than Corso and Gallicchio expected—if its owners sought only techno fans. They're advertising on billboards and radio for the first time and working hard to attract Ohio State University students to ensure they recoup their $2 million investment in Long Street, which debuted this past summer after seven months of construction. A 35-person promotion team greeted OSU students as they arrived on campus in late September and Long Street held a back to-school bash a day after classes started.
Corso's years as an OSU undergraduate inspired Long Street in part. He remembers the days when he spent all night partying safely at High Street's South Campus bars. Now that Campus Partners has razed those nightspots, Corso hopes Long Street will fill the void, even though he's trying to reach a broad market, too. “There is a huge opportunity to give college kids somewhere safe and fun to party right now, and I'm really trying to do that,” he says.
Long Street's success has impressed and surprised some people in the Columbus nightclub scene. Over the past several decades, the city tore down stores and apartment buildings on Long and its neighboring streets as the city sprawled away from its urban center, leaving plenty of parking lots but little economic life. (In fact, surface parking lots comprise two thirds of the one-square-mile downtown, according to the city.)
Doug Holmes, a veteran Columbus deejay and promoter, didn't think Corso's Long Street idea would work. The location was too isolated, too far away from the Short North and the Arena and Brewery districts. But when Corso attracted big crowds during the summer, Holmes changed his mind. “In this town, in the summer, anyone in the entertainment business knows it's really slow," says Holmes, whose stage name is DJ Doughboy. “It's the worst time to do anything. And he's been thriving." Adds Kyle Katz, one of Corso's former business partners: “What Chris is doing is important for Downtown."
But above all, such a massive project would not have happened if Corso and the city continued to feud. For example, consider the cabs that line Long Street on a recent night. It's just after midnight, and Corso approaches the front door of Global in his Cadillac Escalade. A line of well dressed club goers forms behind a velvet rope near Corso's parking spot. Bass heavy dance music spills from the club. Pedestrians scurry across Long Street, and three parked cabs stop traffic in one lane.
In this small piece of Downtown, Columbus actually feels like a lively big city. A single cab is an unusual sight Downtown, let alone three. But some city officials have complained that cabs have snarled traffic on Long since the club complex opened in July. Corso has traveled this road before. Red Zone also brought people to Downtown—something the city wanted—but officials still complained about noise, trash and other nuisances. But this time, Corso says the city sympathizes with him and seems to understand that barhoppers do need taxis to get around safely. He plans to meet with the city soon to talk about the problem. Corso expects to work it out. “They are at least listening to me," he says, as he parks his SUV.
Few people find success in the business world as early as Corso did. While an OSU undergraduate, he organized dance parties at the Newport Music Hall and ran a tanning salon that catered to sororities and fraternities. In his early 20s, he opened his first club in his hometown of Sandusky. At 25, he and three partners launched Mekka in the Buggyworks Building near the Arena District. With its warehouse setting, dancers in cages and overstuffed furniture, Mekka was unique to Columbus, a 10,000-square-foot club that could compare with what was found in New York or Chicago. Two years later, Corso started Red Zone with Gallicchio. In 2000, the two launched Fabric, a forerunner of Long Street. Corso says each project was a financial success. “Chris' track record has been a lot of good luck, getting in with the right people, breaking off at the right time and hitting the market right,” Katz says.
Gallicchio says he met Corso in the early '90s and immediately knew the OSU undergraduate would succeed. Corso was organizing disco parties at the Newport back then and asked Gallicchio, an experienced deejay, for help. “He's very driven, a very ambitious man,” Gallicchio says. Corso typically works 80 to 90 hours a week and has missed work just three times over the past six years, every time for a wedding—his own, his brother's and his brother-in-law's. “He's the hardest working man I've ever known," Gallicchio says. “He works all the time. He doesn't like to sit at home. He can't watch TV. He can't chill out."
But his aggressiveness also has ruffled feathers along the way, particularly when he opened Red Zone in 1997 in a former Certified Oil warehouse Downtown. At Mekka, he was in the shadow of the more experienced Katz, owner of the Buggyworks Building, and shared profits with two other partners, Neil Rosenberg and Tom Higgins. The arrangement made a lot of sense at first, but Mekka's triumph inspired Corso to stake his own claim.
That was a risky proposition. Mekka was the only big club in Columbus at the time, and many people felt the city could support just one. One such person was Higgins. A close friend of Corso's, Higgins introduced his college buddy to Chicago's big-city clubs when Higgins was attending DePaul University College of Law. They partied at such clubs as Crowbar and Shelter and decided Columbus needed something similar.
Even to this day, it's difficult to figure out what happened just before Corso left Mekka. Some people close to Corso and Higgins are still reluctant to talk about it. But in a lawsuit filed just before Red Zone opened in 1997, Higgins claimed Corso, his Phi Kappa Tau fraternity brother, broke a noncompete agreement, lured away Mekka employees and used his insider knowledge to divide the market and unfairly compete against his former partner. Corso denied the claims and two years later a Franklin County Common Pleas judge threw out a $250,000 judgment a jury awarded Higgins.
But Higgins was right about one thing: At that time, Columbus could support just one club. Mekka closed its doors in 1999. It couldn't compete with Red Zone's roomy quarters—20,000 square feet, twice the size of Mekka—and newness. A nightclub's life span is short, and scenesters were eager to try Corso's new creation. Despite the legal battle, Higgins made up with Corso. Higgins went on to start the Shark Club, an Easton nightspot with bowling, billiards and dancing, and Casbah, a Moroccan-themed club that closed in 2001. On Sept. 8, Higgins was driving north on I-71 near Mt. Gilead when his car veered off the road and rolled several times. About a week later, he died at Grant Medical Center in Columbus.
Holmes, the veteran Columbus deejay and promoter, says Corso is a “love-hate guy. He's a businessman, and he wants to make money. So he's going to give a deal where he obviously is going to make money. The industry is still trying to grow in this town, so there's a lot of people with their hands in the bag, and it's just how much you come out with."
Still, Holmes, who prints fliers for Corso, says the nightclub owner treats him well, unlike many other entertainment operators. “When the chips are down, a lot of people just don't want to pay other people, but Chris makes sure that everyone is taken care of," Holmes says.
Gallicchio says he and Corso outwork a lot of their competitors. “People get into the business for the wrong reasons," he says. “They think it's a lot of fun, and they are going to party. You can do that, but it takes hard work, too, and we are both hard workers. We work very hard not to get beat."
Indeed, Red Zone demanded a lot of work. Corso and Gallicchio succeeded in drawing people to the Downtown nightspot, but the big crowds led to unforeseen security problems. They stemmed from the club's popular hip-hop/R&B parties on Sundays that attracted crowds of more than 1,000 revelers. Rowdy youths were responsible for a string of serious crimes in and around the club, including two shootings within two weeks in late 1999.
Corso agreed to end the hip-hop nights and met with residents of the nearby Waterford Tower condominium building to listen to their concerns, but that didn't satisfy the city. Also nearby, Miranova was marketing its luxury high-rise condominiums to some of the city's most prominent citizens. City Council voted in December 1999 to protest the renewal of Red Zone's liquor license. Without booze, the club would have to close. Shortly after the vote, Councilman Mike Mentel told the Dispatch: “I’d say when you have shootings, a rape and assaults stemming directly from your club, you have a major problem. And you need, as owner of the club, to step up and address it. If (Corso] wants to help build a vibrant downtown, step up to the plate and work with us and make the establishment a shining example."
“For them to try and pull this crap without even coming to us is ridiculous," an angry Corso said then. About a year later, the club closed.
Looking back at his early Red Zone days, Corso now admits he should have reached out to the city officials better. He says he put together Red Zone so quickly that he barely talked to the city about his plans. “The city can be a great asset, a great tool, if you work within the system," he says. “But if you don't, then you are going to have problems. That goes for everything from exteriors on the building to cleaning up trash and patrolling noise."
As a result, Corso vowed to act differently when he opened his next Downtown nightspot, Fabric, at 40 E. Long, in the spring of 2000. He has since expanded it into the Long Street Entertainment District, more than tripling its size. “We tried to start off on a different foot, say, 'Here's what we are doing, what do you think? How can we work together?’ ” he says. “We just put our hand out there and tried to meet as many people as we could, and sometimes that goes a long way when you show a little common courtesy."
Red Zone also has returned. After flirting with selling the building, Corso reopened Red Zone in April without a peep from the city. It now hosts nationally known deejays, such as Richard “Humpty" Vission and George Acosta, and ethnic dance parties.
Bob McLaughlin, head of the city's downtown development office, helped Corso navigate the maze of permits, government meetings and bureaucratic hassles required to build the Long Street Entertainment District. Corso adopted the city's suggestions about sidewalk railings and storefront windows and jumped through every hoop he encountered. His transformation has been so complete that even Mentel, once Red Zone's most vocal critic, praises Corso and calls the Long Street complex "the type of entertainment and nightlife that a Downtown should have."
"Chris is really maturing into a very responsible member of the business community," McLaughlin says. “Chris sees the opportunity to use his business skills in not only making a great business, but in making a contribution to the greater community. And that comes from maturity."
Corso credits Mayor Coleman with brokering the truce. He's accessible and open to new Downtown ideas, a philosophy that has trickled down to every city agency, Corso says. City officials also point out that U.S. Census data show that young adults between 25 and 34 make up the largest age group in Franklin County, so it makes political sense to help Corso and others like him—entrepreneurs who want to make Downtown an exciting place for young people. “When the mayor comes Downtown at night and finds all these people Downtown, he's thrilled," McLaughlin says. “Is that a different relationship between the city and business operators like Chris? Maybe so."
James Stowe, the director of the Columbus Community Relations Commission, asked Corso this year to help him engage more young people and perhaps find someone to serve on the commission. Corso replied, “How about me?” In August, Corso began his three year volunteer term on the 23-member commission, which provides diversity education to city employees and citizens and promotes tolerance. His official appointment was made by the mayor.
Corso's brash style can still appear on occasion. Earlier this year, he began demolition on Long Street before he had permission from the city. He apologized to city officials and promised never to do it again. “Sometimes, my passion gets ahead of my smarts," he says.
And Long Street has yet to pass its biggest test. No one doubts it will do well through the fall, traditionally the best season for nightclubs, but some wonder if it can continue to succeed a year from now. Competition is fierce. The E! network won't film “Wild On Columbus” anytime soon, but the scene is clearly growing. Insiders say Long Street faces competition from about 10 other dance clubs. Forty bars also have opened within the past five years, and the cutthroat atmosphere has left several casualties since 2000. “What we have today, without question, is an oversupply of nightclubs," Katz says.
What's more, Long Street's broad goal—to attract the hip and the hoi polloi—is risky. Katz says the wide audience could alienate Corso's most loyal customers, the progressive dance crowd that made Mekka and Red Zone successful. “These are people who don't like going to parties where everyone is invited,” Katz says.
But Corso is confident. He says Long Street and other Downtown clubs—Krome, Wall Street, the Columbus Eagle Bar, Red Zone—are creating a scene that strengthens everyone. In fact, Corso says he receives phone calls all the time from people interested in redeveloping buildings near his Long Street complex. (The problem is there aren't many buildings nearby; most were torn down over the past 30 years.)
Corso also says he's talking with the city about another Downtown project. He says it's too early to reveal many details, but he does hint it would be bigger than Long Street and include retail and housing. It's clear times are good for him. “I can't wait to get into work and figure out how we are going to market the next project or bring in the next act or build the next club," he says.
This story originally appeared in the November 2002 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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