First Avenue's Day in Court

Only three years after buying the building, the owner and the president of First Avenue are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute that could affect the future of the nightclub. The plaintiff is art gallery owner Allan Fingerhut, who opened the downtown Minneapolis music venue as the Depot in 1970 and is sole owner of the Committee, Inc., which owns the business. The defendant is Fingerhut's childhood friend and longtime business partner Byron Frank, who has been president of the Committee since 2000. That was the year both men (along with club managers Steve McClellan and Jack Meyers) purchased the property from Ted Mann and his Hollywood Theatre Co.

Now Fingerhut and Frank are facing off in Hennepin Country District Court, with a summary judgment hearing scheduled for September 11. The partnership that helped secure the landmark appears to be coming apart--and in a year when the cash-strapped club has seen downtown property values soar.

Neither party will comment on the case, but judging from the phone-book-sized file, the point of dispute is a document that Fingerhut's complaint calls "fictitious": an agreement, dated September 1, 2000, that outlines Frank's compensation, including a percentage of the business. According to the complaint, Frank rejected the percentage offer in favor of a salary. Frank's affidavit says he insisted on both the salary and the percentage, and that getting the job was a condition of the investment deal.

Steve McClellan says he doesn't know the details, but he describes the dispute in more personal terms. "Allan and Byron have been friends for 44 years, and it's like watching a nasty divorce between a husband and wife," he says. "The club is just one small variable in a 44-year history."

Neither the plaintiff nor the defendant says he has any intention of selling the property out from under the other, and both say the club's devotees have no reason to worry.

"The club is bulletproof," says Fingerhut, noting that he's discussed the dispute with First Avenue employees. "I'm going to let them know that after 33 years, [they shouldn't] be concerned about what somebody else is doing."

"I don't think there's any question at all that Steve McClellan and Jack Meyers will be there as long as there's a First Avenue," insists Frank, "and to the best of my knowledge, First Avenue ain't going nowhere."

 
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