by: ROB BUCHLER
Giving area youth a place to hang out has been the goal of Club Vertigo owner Dennis Herp since he opened the Friday nightclub in Escanaba last August.
The club has proven popular with teens, drawing a typical crowd of 175-200 youth to the old Michigan Theater on Ludington Street. His efforts have hit a bit of a roadblock, though, with a Delta County Probate court decision banning youth on probation to the family division of Delta County Circuit Court from going to the club.
Club Vertigo is open from 7-11 p.m. Friday nights and offers music, dancing, snacks and conversation. Formerly known as Club Inferno, Herp said he changed the name once he realized some were interpreting "Inferno" as meaning "Hell," an image he did not intend to project.
"I'm here for four hours to provide entertainment and a safe environment, and a safe environment is not fighting, or smoking, or alcohol. I'm against all those things," he said. But he does reach out to those kids who may have problems, which is the main reason he is upset with the probate court decision.
"I've never been after the 'popular kids.' I want to help those kids who have drinking problems, who have problems with violence, and the probate court is taking away the kids who I'm trying to help," he said.
Delta County Probate Judge Robert Goebel said the court's decision to keep youth on probation from going to the club was not based on anything bad they had learned or heard about the Friday night club. "It's just a feeling we have that they (the youth on probation) would be more successful in completing their probations if they stayed away," he said.
Goebel said his Jan. 9 decision was not meant to indicate the club was a bad influence on youth. Neither Goebel nor Herp had any idea how many youth the order would affect, though Herp was concerned word of the ruling would circulate and create a bad image in parents' minds about the club.
Herp said he strives to keep a safe, clean environment for youth, and enforces several rules to do so. Among the rules are bans on smoking, alcohol, swearing, sexual activity ("Two bodies, two seats," as they call it), and even gum chewing.
Adult staff members even pat down youth when they enter, to keep cigarettes, alcohol and other illicit items out of the club. Herp said they worked with Escanaba Public Safety to ensure it was permissible to pat down attendees, who are checked by staff members of the same sex.
Herp's wife, Tracey, said the youth are fine with being checked at the door. "The kids don't have a problem with it. They'll come up with their coats open and tell us to look," she said.
Rev. Art Radlicki, who is planting a church at the theater known as Silver Winds Church, which owns the building, said he is very supportive of what the Herps are trying to do for area youth.
"I have never in my ministry seen something grow so quickly," he said of Club Vertigo's attendance. "I know a lot of churches would like to experience that kind of growth in their programs," he added.
Radlicki's church-planting launch team provides about 15 adult volunteers to help the Herps on Friday nights, supplementing their own staff of 15 to supervise the youth. "I was impressed real quickly with how quick he was to enforce the rules," Radlicki said of Herp. "He is good at being a friend to the youth but not a buddy, and he has the ability to disappoint without burning bridges. The kids always come back."
Radlicki said having the youth in the theater Friday nights has made a unique partnership between the two organizations. Herp pays a minimum $50 up to $300 a week to run the club at the church's building, with money coming from the $1 collected from each youth in attendance.
Herp said he also enjoys partnering with Radlicki. "It's a huge asset to me. It makes my job a whole lot easier.". Tracey Herp added, "The kids' jaws drop when Dennis tells them Art is a pastor." Dennis said without the help of Radlicki and his staff, and the free air time given by MIX 106, he would never have been able to get Club Vertigo off the ground and running.
Herp said he reacts as quickly as possible to any problems that occur in the club. He said nine times out of 10 problems are dealt with on the spot, though once in a great while a teen will have to be sent home. Tracey said her main job with the club is to walk around and serve as a rules enforcer. Adult volunteers also go outside about every 10 minutes beginning at 6:30 p.m. to make sure youth aren't causing any problems outside.
Herp said nearby business owners have told him their Friday night sales have gone up because kids aren't hanging out in front of their stores and scaring away potential customers.
He also said he hopes the community doesn't lose sight of what he is trying to accomplish with Club Vertigo, which he says is to keep as many teens as possible from going through what he did:
"I grew up with an alcoholic and drug-addicted stepfather. He taught me everything I knew about being bad. It landed me at 15 living under the viaducts in Grand Rapids with nothing but my drugs and alcohol. One day I looked in a mirror and didn't like what I'd become," he said. With the help of five friends, Herp said he quit drugs and alcohol cold turkey. "I've grown leaps and bounds now, since I was 18," the 29-year-old said. "I try to talk to as many of the kids as possible, and tell them why I'm doing this for them," he said.