July 26, 2021

Chattanooga revokes SkyZoo nightclub’s permit after repeated violent incidents

After a rash of police calls and a fatal shooting in May, the city of Chattanooga on Tuesday revoked a decade-old special exceptions permit for the SkyZoo nightclub, posing questions about what’s next for the venue and those with similar histories.

In February 2011, the City Council granted a special exceptions permit to the club, which sits in a former Red Lobster building in a parking lot with a car dealership and other businesses on Lee Highway.

At that meeting more than 10 years ago, Nancy Bennett, who owned a home furnishings store in the same parking lot, spoke out against the permit. She told council members that two people had been shot and killed on the property while the building was occupied by a bar, according to the minutes of the meeting.

“She stated, at times, it has taken police all over the county going there to control the problems they have had at some of the bars,” the minutes say. “She stated if you do the same thing over and over and come up with the same result, why not change what is being done and not allow that.”

Ultimately, the council approved the permit, which allowed the venue to be a nightclub — meaning it could have a dance floor, live music and other exceptions that go outside of the principal uses of C-2 commercial convenience zoning.

“Among the principal uses are the things you would think about in commerce: drug stores, grocery stores, dry cleaners, all of these things,” City Attorney Emily O’Donnell said of the land’s typical zoning on Tuesday, during the city’s hearing on the now-revoked permit.

Bennett sold her business next to the club in 2016 and has since moved out of town, so she was unaware of recent crimes, but told the Times Free Press it was “a shame” to hear there had been another death.

“When it was open and a popular bar they used to park in my parking lot,” Bennett said. “I had the store right next door and someone got killed in the driveway right between my business and the SkyZoo.

“But when those bars are open until 3 a.m. or however very late, what can you expect except for trouble?”

(READ MORE: Police ask for videos, photos from inside SkyZoo after man fatally shot)

In May of this year, two people were injured in another shooting outside of the club, including 32-year-old Eric Grant, who did not survive.

That shooting prompted Chattanooga’s new mayoral administration to look into revoking the club’s special permit.

“Addressing gun violence in the city is a top priority for Mayor Tim Kelly’s administration. And, as our attorney mentioned, the incident that happened in May basically shed some light on a situation that we thought needed to be addressed and investigated, and that’s what brought us here today,” Chief of Staff Brent Goldberg said during the hearing on Tuesday.

Research into SkyZoo showed an increase in serious calls to police over the past year, according to Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy. According to Roddy, police have responded to more than 100 serious calls at SkyZoo in the past 365 days.

“We had a total of 36 disorders, 27 suspicious persons, 18 fights or disorders, 15 self-initiated field interviews, 10 assault calls, and eight shots fired, person shot, or other incidents involving a firearm,” Roddy said Tuesday.

“Now that is not the total calls for service. That’s just the types of calls that I just illustrated for you,” Roddy said, noting that he left out medical, domestic violence, traffic incidents and other calls.

“If you’re talking about a propensity for issues, it looks like, what’s being presented in the data, that 5709 Lee Highway [Sky Zoo], is increasing in its types of calls for service that I mentioned were probably going to be the most concerning relative to violence or just the potential threat of someone being harmed,” Roddy said.

The numbers reported by Roddy exceeded those of similar calls at Coyote Jack’s in its last year of operation. The downtown Chattanooga club was shut down by the city for a similar history of violence in 2019.

(READ MORE: ‘The parking lot holds my brother’s blood’; fatal shootings at Coyote Jack’s spur community discourse, city inquiry)

Ultimately, the administration and Chattanooga Police Department called for the council to revoke the permit.

Leo Dacoregio a part-owner of SkyZoo, told the council Tuesday that he uses eight security personnel to do pat-downs of every entrant, monitor the venue and create a safe environment.

He said the May shooting took place because of a personal disagreement between the two men and did not reflect on the safety of SkyZoo.

“Sadly, Eric was going to die either way that night,” Dacoregio told the council. “The guy came there to kill him.”

“They didn’t have the weapon inside the club. The guy that shot had his gun inside the car,” Dacoregio later added. “When we called last call, he left the club first, went to his car and got his gun.”

He said that reprimanding SkyZoo was not going to prevent any violence.

“You talk about closing down the SkyZoo and all the gun violence will disappear. They just go to the next place,” he said. “At the least, people that come to the SkyZoo know that inside they’re safe. Outside, I’m sorry, but that’s Chattanooga Police Department.”

Dacoregio said that he was happy to forfeit the permit and rebrand as a sports bar to attract a different clientele.

“I’m giving you my [permit] back, my exception. I don’t want to be a nightclub anymore,” Dacoregio said. “I’m old. I want to go home and hang out with my kids. I don’t want to die.”

“You think I ain’t scared? I’m scared for my people too. So turning to a sports bar, I think that’s going to lower it a lot,” Dacoregio said, noting that his capacity will drop and his clientele would likely change.

The bar has been advertising itself as a “sports bar” on social media for years. Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod, who represents a nearby area, said that it’s not enough to change the venue to a sports bar.

“I’m really disturbed because here we’re talking about a female-owned, part ownership, and we’re talking about Black and brown people that’s got part ownership,” Coonrod said. “I am in no way trying to run you out of business, but my role is to do what’s right and what’s fair and making sure that we’re reducing violence and crime, and this place has been attracting crime to the area, and I have some concerns.”

“You already know the kind of people you attract to the club, and we’re just going to be honest. You’ve got every gang affiliation in this spot, you’ve got drug dealers in this spot. You’ve got people that’s going to bring bad behavior to your establishment,” said Coonrod, who has been to the club. “So I’m not asking for lies and cover-ups to try and sell yourself about why your business needs to be open, I understand that, but I understand the population that you’re catering to too.

“So even if you turn in your [permit], it’s not going to stop the behavior that we’re talking about,” Coonrod added. “This place is a public nuisance, it’s a public health crisis. That’s what we’re talking about.”

The council then voted unanimously to revoke the permit.

“What we’ve just done now is a pony show,” Coonrod said, calling for the council and mayor’s office to work toward shutting the venue down. “Like, I get it, but we’ve done nothing. Sports bar or late night entertainment venue, it’s going to continue to be the same thing that’s happened.”

Joda Thongnopnua, chief policy officer for the mayor’s office, told the Times Free Press on Wednesday that the council’s decision was a step in the right direction but that the administration didn’t have any immediate plans to intervene further on SkyZoo’s operations.

“The action taken by council was considered on a narrow set of circumstances, specifically related to their special exceptions permit. Right now, we don’t have any plans of taking any other actions,” Thongnopnua said. “But we were pleased with the council’s decision to ultimately revoke that special exceptions permit.”

Thongnopnua said the revocation of the permit was effective immediately after passing, meaning that SkyZoo can no longer operate as a nightclub.

Any potential intervention on Dacoregio’s plan to rebrand as a sports bar would likely fall on the beer board or other regulatory authorities, according to Thongnopnua.

On the venue’s public Facebook, Dacoregio announced shortly before the 6 p.m. opening on Wednesday that the club would reopen as a sports bar with some new rules.

“It’s a new day here at SkyZoo,” the post reads, noting that patrons other than those registered for the bar’s pool and billiard league, would have to be at least 25 years old to enter.

“We have removed our dance floor, stage and DJ booth and are officially now a sports bar,” the post continues. “Physically our facility also has a few more changes coming, so it is our hope that you adapt with us in the coming days as we upgrade the experience we have for you!”

The post also says the bar will make its security cameras available to the authorities through a Chattanooga police program in the interest of safety.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at 423-757-6416 or staylor@timesfreepress.com or on Twitter @_SarahGTaylor.