Cordish Cos., Norfolk Developer, faces lawsuits alleging racial discrimination

The Virginian-Pilot

The Cordish Cos., the developer Norfolk is banking on to revive Waterside, faces accusations of racial discrimination at three of its entertainment projects in other cities.

In June, five black men sued Fourth Street Live, the Cordish facility in Louisville, Ky., alleging they were denied entrance because of their race while white patrons were admitted.

In March, the dress code for several bars at Ballpark Village, a new Cordish development in St. Louis, drew complaints that it was overly restrictive and targeted minorities.

Among the clothing banned: “excessively long shirts,” “excessively sagging pants,” and sports jerseys (unless in conjunction with a Cardinals game or other major sports event).

Also in March, a former employee and two patrons filed separate lawsuits relating to Cordish’s Kansas City Power & Light District, a multiblock downtown development with more than 50 bars, restaurants and shops.

The employee, Glen Cusimano, claims that black people were harassed by security and told they could not enter clubs because they were in violation of dress codes even though they were not. He also alleges he was ordered to hire a white man dubbed a “rabbit” to intentionally start arguments with black patrons in front of security.

The patrons, Dante A.R. Combs and Adam S. Williams, filed a lawsuit claiming that Cordish and other defendants created an atmosphere of hostility for blacks at the Power & Light District and kept head counts of black patrons in nightclubs to keep the number down.

In response, Cordish filed a racketeering lawsuit saying the allegations are false and part of a scheme to extort money.

Based in Baltimore, the company specializes in hotels, casinos and entertainment districts, often done in partnership with local government to revive downtown areas.

“The districts go to great lengths to ensure every one of our approximate 50 million annual guests is welcomed in a festive and safe environment and we are extremely proud that 99.99% of our patrons report positive experiences and frequent the districts again and again,” Cordish spokeswoman Candice Coolahan said in an email. “The majority of the districts have had no incidents or complaints despite years of operation and millions of visitors.”

Dress codes are part of a code of conduct recommended by police and liquor agencies for safety, she said. The company notes that there have been no dress code problems at its facilities in Houston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Orlando, Fla.

In August, the Norfolk City Council approved a contract with Cordish to transform Waterside, which had languished for years, into Waterside Live, a collection of restaurants and nightclubs with an open-air feel. Renovation is scheduled to begin by the end of the year.

The council waived its ability to regulate individual establishments at Waterside Live, allowing Cordish to operate them under one permit. Giving that authority to the developer concerned members of the Downtown Norfolk Civic League, said Kevin Murphy, the league’s president.

“The city needs to keep an eye on these lawsuits because they’ve turned over the keys to Waterside,” he said.

In response to the Kansas City lawsuits, Cordish in May filed a lawsuit against Linda S. Dickens, the lawyer representing both plaintiffs, and her law firm, saying they threatened to bring false allegations to the public unless Cordish and the others agreed to “a resolution.”

A December letter from Dickens to one of the bars in the district asked, “Would the Kansas City Chiefs want to continue utilizing the District for team events if insidious discrimination were brought to light?” according to the lawsuit.

An attorney for Cordish met with Dickens that month to disprove her claims, the lawsuit said.

“Each time (he) proved to Defendants that the allegations being made against Plaintiffs were false, Defendants would change their story to attempt to make up new ‘facts’ that might be harder to disprove,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges that Dickens and her law firm constitute an enterprise trying to exert public pressure on Cordish and others to make them pay “large amounts of money.”

In court papers, Cusimano said he was a lounge manager and security liaison for the district, working with a private security company.

He alleges he was ordered to hire a white man dubbed a “rabbit” to intentionally start arguments with black patrons in front of security.

“As soon as the argument started, security would move in and eject participants,” the lawsuit says. “While the rabbit would also be ejected, he only had to walk around the corner and come in a different entrance.”

Cusimano also alleges that callers making reservations over the phone at a bar were told it was booked if they sounded black. And Cusimano alleges that one of the nightclubs recruited two people to start a fight with him in August, leading to his termination.

The Cordish lawsuit responded that the lounge had no choice but to fire Cusimano because police had charged him with assault in the incident. Cusimano had previously been convicted of fraud, according to Cordish’s lawsuit.

Cordish also came under fire in 2008 by members of the City Council in Kansas City over a dress code that banned attire commonly worn by blacks.

The allegations don’t appear to have shaken the Norfolk City Council’s confidence in the company.

Councilman Barclay Winn said he “would be personally surprised if a company that’s been around as long as they have and has the reputation they have would do something so obviously immoral and illegal.”

Councilman Paul Riddick said he had not heard about the lawsuits, but said, “When they built Maryland Live they used an African American general contractor, and that validates them with me.”

Patrick Wilson, 757-222-3893,