Baltimore has never been kind to mega-clubs.
Even in 2000, when promoters in cities like Washington started moving illegal underground dance parties into large legitimate clubs, the trend didn't catch on in Baltimore. But that hasn't stopped investors from trying to open large-scale clubs here.
The newest investor to try to lure the Baltimore club scene from small lounges to a big venue is Jon Han. After founding the acclaimed club Ibiza in Washington, he turned his attention to the 20,000-square-foot Redwood Trust building at Redwood and Calvert streets in Baltimore.
He's not the first to try running a club there: In the past eight years, two previous owners have tried and failed to turn the historic spot into a successful mega-club.
Still, Han believes his business model will stick. He formed a management group that sank $2.5 million into renovations, including a $600,000 lighting rig and a sound system imported from England. The club, renamed Palma, opened earlier this month. In the coming weeks, a sister club called Dubai, which will be managed by Han, will open just across Calvert Street.
Han has his work cut out for him. Baltimore's club-goers can be fickle and are only interested in the next new thing, critics say. And past clubs in the same swath of downtown have had problems with crime.
But Han, bolstered by a strong grand-opening night, is confident Palma will succeed.
Given Baltimore's reputation as an anti-large-club town, why did you decide to open Palma here?
Everybody says "Baltimore is blue-collar, Baltimore is cheap, Baltimore is this, Baltimore is that." ... But I knew deep inside the Baltimore people that come to D.C. - a tremendous amount of people - those people are seeking quality. That's something Baltimore couldn't offer them. I knew it all along. So I came down here and opened a club that Baltimore people want. This is what they want.
How different are Washington and Baltimore club-goers?
Most people go out twice a week. They may go to a lounge one night and a large club one night. it's the same in D.C. and Baltimore - there's not much of a difference, except the population is a lot lower in Baltimore. That's it. Party, style, quality - everything is the same. ... People want to go to a place they want to be in on weekends.
They chose D.C. because Baltimore couldn't offer it. This is it. This is going to be the landmark in Baltimore. People will come from D.C. to party here. People will come from Philadelphia to party in Baltimore. We're bringing the class up, we're bringing the scale up in Baltimore.
What's Palma's biggest challenge?
There's no challenge for us. We just do what we do best on a daily basis. We bring high-end DJs, and people travel to Baltimore. No one else does it here. I have no competition - no challenge. ... Everybody went against it, and I made it happen, and I did it and that makes me special. That makes me want to prove that the Baltimore crowd is a really good crowd - not what people from D.C. think. ... But I proved all these people wrong just on the grand-opening day. And I'm going to continue to prove them wrong.
One of the biggest hurdles for a new club is sustaining the buzz it gets when it opens. How do you plan to do that?
Any club you go to, buzz will die down. But mega club buzz usually lasts from six months or eight months up to two years. But to maintain the buzz, you bring the special acts in. Baltimore people would like to see celebrities. [Reality TV star] Tila Tequila has never been in Baltimore. People just love her, so we brought her in. ... Twice a month on Thursdays, we're going to bring in celebrities. Two or three times a month on Saturdays, we're going to bring in high-end international DJs. ... We're going to continue to bring artists in, too.
You're also opening a club called Dubai, right across Calvert Street. Are you worried you'll be competing with yourself?
No. All we have to do is bring more people than what Palma can hold. We need to concentrate on one spot to promote. There's no competition with us. We bring more than enough people to Dubai and more than enough people to Palma. Whichever gets full and people who can't get in will just automatically walk over to next door. We have a very strong team of about 150 promoters when you combine both places.
Why will you succeed here when a few club owners before you have not? Are you worried about their past failures?
Basically, I don't worry about that reputation. It's all about management, who's coming in to manage the business. I know there have been some incidents. But we have extra security and we're working with overtime uniformed patrol officers. We're going to have police officers present on each corner of the club and more than enough security so we can reach out to more than a block from the club. We're trying to provide safety to clients that are coming to our clubs. ... We can easily control the crowd we bring into this neighborhood by having Dubai and Palma across from each other. That way we can pick and choose the clientele that comes into our club. We're trying to change this neighborhood.
What do you take into consideration when you create a megaclub?
I used to be a DJ and I still call myself a DJ. Sound and lighting is very important to me. People don't just eat or drink with their mouths. They have to drink with their eyes first. If you want to drink a bottle of Jack Daniel's, you can do it at home. Why would you want to come to a club to drink? Because [people] want to drink with their eyes and ears. We're trying to dazzle their eyes and ears.
How long will it be before you consider Palma a success?
Palma is already a success because its name is out there. We have a following. I've been in this business long enough to know when I've met people on the floor how these people feel. ... Word of mouth is extremely important. The first week is the hardest week of the club's entire life span.
Club music is declining in popularity. Will booking renowned DJs really help bring in big numbers of people?
Certain DJs are like the Grateful Dead. People travel to see certain DJs. ... If I'm only promoting in Baltimore, I might have a problem. But I'm bringing people from D.C., Philadelphia, all three states. I'm very confident we'll pack the house.
Plus, I love trance music, too. I'm a trance DJ. That's where my heart is. ... All these investors said I was crazy. ... Everybody said it was impossible. I had faith. I knew it was going to work.
Baltimore was way overdue for something like this.