May 4 2011 12:00 AM

Taxes force Old Town LGBT club to close after a two-year run


After months of financial woes, The Chrome Cat, a
lesbian-oriented hot spot, closed its doors Saturday, an emotional night
for not only its loyal patrons, but its dedicated staff as well.

The final evening featured a performance by The House Divas, which packed the venue to capacity one last time.

Owners Lisa Whitehead and Michelle Taylor opened The
Chrome Cat on Jan. 9, 2009, and it quickly developed a following.
However, the weight of back taxes forced the bar out of business,
according to Melissa “Inky” Kim, Chrome Cat’s general manager.  

“The first year of business (the owners) had really big
plans that weren’t met by community revenue,” Kim said. “I pretty much
was asked to take over as general manager last July as a last resort because we almost closed our doors for good then. We had the ‘Save the
Kitty Benefit’ to make up the $13,000 we owed (in back rent) to our
landlord — and we did pay that off. But what we owe now is about $52,000
in payroll taxes, revenue taxes and business taxes.” 

For the back taxes, the state and federal government
placed a lien on the club’s liquor license, ceasing all sales of liquor
at the establishment, which ultimately forced the Chrome Cat to close.
Kim said the liquor license itself is worth $75,000, though all taxes
must be paid-in-full before the owners can sell the license. This is the
same type of predicament Rendezvous on the Grand (the previous bar in
that location) experienced in late 2008.  

Money issues aside, Kim is distraught over the closing.
Fighting back tears, she said the worst part is losing the family vibe
the job offered and the sanctuary it provided for some of Lansing’s
lesbian community.

“It was a definite community safe space for a lot of
people, and I think that’s going to be a big hole in our community,” Kim
said. “But I think the saddest thing is that 90 percent of my staff has
been here since day one. Two years and four months gave us a lot of
time to grow together and become a family. I’m grateful for that and I
think that’ll continue to grow.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with my staff in the
future but there’s definitely a lot of talent here, so I do hope
something good comes for them.”

As for the future of the business and its owners, Whitehead said she is open to relocating if a serious offer arises.

“I’ve had a number of people who say they have money and
are interested in taking my liquor license, and relocating The Chrome
Cat to another place," Whitehead said.

"I am more than willing to do that. If somebody wants to
come out of the woodwork, I’d work with them on that. As soon as I can
pay off the taxes, the liquor license can be transferred or purchased. I
would try it again, but I can’t do it on my own.”

Kim said she feels there were mistakes
made early on, like opening the bar too early in the day, being open too
many days of the week and offering too many menu choices. 

“The original vision was to have a daytime restaurant
atmosphere and then a nightclub at night, but as many people in this
town know, you either have to have one or the other: There’s not enough
to support both,” Kim said. “The day-to-day revenue just wasn’t enough
to sustain us and our past mistakes. It was just the everyday business
we needed — we had our hands in too many cookie jars for too long. When I
took over in July of 2010 we cut it back, shortened the menu, made a
lot of different changes. But it was kind of too little, too late.” 

Kim said the government offered help. 

“The state of Michigan was going to work
with us and do a payment plan as long as we signed a contract with
them,” she explained.

“Which is all good and well, but once we
came in and looked at our numbers we couldn’t in good faith sign a
contract saying, ‘We’re going to pay you this money’ when we didn’t know
if we could. If we defaulted on a payment like that the state would
come in, inventory everything, and we’d walk away with nothing. Doing it
this way, we liquidate our inventory and can at least try to make some
money to pay towards the lien.”  

Even in its short existence, Whitehead said she feels The Chrome Cat made a positive impact on the gay community.

“It wasn’t just a bar,” Whitehead said.
“There was a lot of bonding and relationships happening. We even hosted
weddings, birthdays, AIDS awareness events, plays, concerts, benefits
for gay-friendly charities — it felt like home. I will miss that. It’s
very sad for me.”