An entrepreneur's reputation is shaping up as the biggest obstacle in his effort to open a nightclub for teens in south St. Louis County.
Mark A. Johnson, 42, is seeking a license to open Envy, a club for youths 14 to 18, at 3924 Lemay Ferry Road in an unincorporated area.
Johnson has told county officials that the club would be a safe alternative to cruising and loitering, a drug- and alcohol-free zone where parents would be comfortable dropping their kids off for a few hours.
But problems at a North County teen club in which Johnson is a part-owner have prompted County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, to oppose a South County venue.
"Johnson has a track record," Stenger said. "What he calls a teen club is really a misnomer. What he operates are basically teen orgy environments where kids go to display their worst behavior."
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Johnson, a mortgage broker who lives in Jefferson County, concedes that there have been problems with the North county club called 12-12 at New Halls Ferry Road just north of Interstate 270.
He asserts that he has learned lessons there that would make Envy a wholesome hangout for teens.
"12-12 has evolved into something I didn't expect it to," Johnson said. "But I've learned the good and the bad and the problems, and the environment at Envy will be night-and-day different."
12-12 opened in July of last year. Police shut it down two nights later following what one officer described as a near-riot situation outside the club.
Unruly youths got into fistfights, fired gunshots into the air and mobbed businesses to the point that owners of a nearby Quik Trip locked its doors and shut off fuel pumps until police restored order.
The club reopened in February after Johnson and his partners vowed to conform to strict, new rules that the County Council enacted in response to the troubles there.
St. Louis County Police Capt. Troy Doyle, commander of the North Precinct, said the situation at 12-12 has improved, but that trouble still persists there.
He cited police reports dating from March through last month of youths firing guns outside the club; fights on the parking lot; vehicle theft and tampering; and curfew violations.
Beyond those incidents, Doyle alluded to what he called an "unsavory atmosphere" at the club.
He said the music is "vulgar" and that officers have seen known gang members inside the venue. He also said that club owners have allowed older individuals to attend, some in their 20s, in violation of a county ordinance for teen clubs that prohibits anyone older than 18 from entering.
County officials have collected fliers advertising events at 12-12 that featured photos of scantily-clad women in raunchy poses. One event, in August, was advertised on a flier as "Welcome 2 My Sex Room" and offered discounts to girls who showed up wearing pajamas.
Doyle said: "This is just Captain Troy Doyle's opinion, but I think these club owners are more concerned with revenue than the safety and moral development of these kids."
Stenger said he will introduce legislation to give the County Council final say over granting such licenses. That authority now is in the hands of the county's Department of Revenue.
Meanwhile, the council has put a 30-day hold on granting any teen club licenses.
"I have spoken to my constituents and to police in South County and neither group wants any part of this club," Stenger said.
Johnson tried last week to separate himself from the controversy at 12-12, which is part-owned by a longtime friend of his, Mark E. Williams, a real estate speculator who lives in North County.
"I don't want to throw my friend under the bus, but I have lost faith in the ownership group at 12-12," Johnson said. "I know this sounds like an excuse, but I've distanced myself from that club. And I want to do something completely different here in South County, something that everyone can be proud of."