AIKEN - When Jasmine's teen club opened its doors in fall 2003, its owners had no idea that a miscommunication about a 21-year-old man's whereabouts would put them under a suspicious public spotlight.
Now the manager says the club has about a month to rebound from the ongoing stigma of the September rumors, or it will have to shut down.
The trouble started after 21-year-old Bennate White left the club at Cooley Street and Whiskey Road on Sept. 4 and didn't come home for several days. Police searched for him, and rumors about abductions from the club ran rampant.
Mr. White was found safe several days later, and his absence from home was found to be voluntary. The club had nothing to do with it, said Aiken County sheriff's Lt. Michael Frank.
Sheriff's office records show no major incidents have been reported at the club since its opening.
Manager Dave Byars said it's hard enough keeping a teen club open, but even harder when false rumors drive teens away.
"It just destroyed our business. We went from 70 or 80 people a night to about 10 people a night," Mr. Byars said.
Anyone between 13 and 20 can come to the club, which offers dancing, pool, air hockey and contests. But Aiken County teens haven't been coming lately, no matter how hard the club tries to separate itself from the September incident, Mr. Byars said.
The only money the club makes is from a $3 door charge and soda and snack sales.
"We're not making enough money right now to keep the lights on. If it keeps going this way, I'm going to have to apply for a beer license or something," Mr. Byars said.
If the club turns into a bar, people such as 20-year-old Dana Dennis say they won't have a place to hang out.
"Before now, I've never found a place I can go and hang out without my parents," Mr. Dennis said.
After Mr. White went missing, Mr. Dennis said, he noticed a lot of his friends stopped coming to the club.
Lynn Culpepper's 17-year-old son Carl has been going to the club almost every weekend since it opened.
She said the disappearance in September didn't stop her from letting her son go there.
"New Ellenton has nothing for teens. This gives them a place to go instead of getting in trouble. ... If I didn't think it was a nice place and a decent place, he wouldn't be going," Ms. Culpepper said.
Keeping a teen club open and making it profitable is not easy, former Augusta teen club owner Chin Yu said.
"There are a lot of pros and cons," he said.
For 10 years, he ran a weekly teen night at Mulligan's on Bertram Road. He said last year he decided to discontinue the teen night because it was too much trouble.
"How can you survive with a once-a-week business? A teen club only is not going to make it," Mr. Yu said.
Mr. Byars said his club is losing money to keep its five employees, who make around the minimum wage.
"If something doesn't happen within a month, it's going to go under," he said.
The club owners are hoping a New Year's Eve party Friday will start a turnaround.
"We really hope the New Year's Eve party will get them back in here," Mr. Byars said.
Reach Phil Watson at (706) 828-3904 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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