More Hot Spots Opening Downtown

June 24, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — With the grand opening of Tini Bikinis Bar & Grille on June 10, the stripper pole officially became a reality in downtown Grand Rapids.

Part of a landslide of new nightlife and entertainment options in the downtown area, Tini Bikinis comprises one level of 76 S. Division Ave., formerly the alternative nightclub, The Cell.

Inside, the walls are mirrored and the lighting dim, and the two lounges each feature the signature chrome pole of the exotic dancer. At Tini Bikinis, whose Class C liquor license with entertainment permit does not permit nudity or simulated sexual acts, the dancers don’t wear much less than the waitresses, and a $25 couch dance won’t get patrons anything more than what Hooters or any nightclub marketed toward the college crowd provides for free.

But Tini Bikinis is the first of what many fear may lead to downtown development turning from an arena and convention center bordered by academic institutions and artistic endeavors, into something more akin to, say, New Orleans, where the SuperDome and several convention halls run parallel to the ever-popular Bourbon Street, or to Las Vegas, where what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Tini Bikinis is the first Grand Rapids venture of Hudsonville resident Christopher Petrick, owner of Murphy’s Gentleman’s Club, a Muskegon Heights topless bar.

Tini Bikinis likely won’t mark the emergence of Triple X’s lining the streets of downtown Grand Rapids, but it is representative of a changing and evolving industry that is slowly but surely making its way downtown.

The most significant development is Sensations proprietor Mark London’s intention to convert the Sennett Steel building at 234 Market Ave. SW into an adult entertainment complex.

“For me it’s mostly customer driven,” London said. “My customers keep saying things like, ‘I wish you were downtown. I had a meeting with my buddies and we were looking for someplace to go downtown and we’d have loved to go to your place but it was too far away.’ I kept hearing that sort of comment over and over.

“People are just going downtown now,” he added. “With few exceptions, everybody is suffering other than the downtown area. All the bars and restaurants outside of the downtown area are now really hurting because people are so ingrained to go downtown.”

The ambitious project will have a mall design similar to some establishments in Las Vegas and Hollywood.

The two-level complex will have four different elements, all London-owned but marketed as separate entities. A Sensations downtown location will offer lunch and full bar similar to the location near Centerpointe Mall, but with a larger stage that will offer the opportunity for elaborate shows. There will be an all-nude juice bar that will offer a liquor-free, completely nude show for the 18-and-over market, similar to the popular Déjà Vu franchises in Lansing and Kalamazoo. Other shops will include a toy and novelty shop and a DVD/video store.

The facility will have no “peepshows” and likely no pornographic books or magazines.

“One thing I can say is that it will be classy, clean and safe,” London said. “That’s what we’ve tried to do at Sensations, and we will continue to do that with the whole organization.”

Although London has met some resistance, mostly on the subject of a possible lack of parking, he has not yet met much of an effort to stop the development, especially when compared to the resistance he met when he attempted to open a topless bar nearly a decade ago in the central business district.

“There are different views now,” he said. “Compared to the last time I tried to go downtown, the difference is night and day. I have heard almost zero negatives.”

This time around, with the exception of a letter of disapproval from the Heartside Neighborhood Association, the city and the community have not to date declared any significant opposition.

“I haven’t talked to any of my bosses in earnest of what the position of the city ought to be,” City Manager Kurt Kimball said. “I think it’s safe to say that few in City Hall are of the opinion that we should welcome these establishments with open arms as a way of becoming a more cosmopolitan city. I don’t think this city or its government wants to encourage that at all. But some of us have a more sophisticated understanding that it is illegal to bar such establishments from existing in a city such as ours.

“And we have solicited expert opinion on the subject before, and we know the care we have to use in any effort to frustrate what may be offensive to some, but as far as the state is concerned is a legitimate business.”

In recent years, the city fought a long battle with The Velvet Touch, an adult bookstore and novelty shop at 845 28th St. SE

“I explained this to people,” London said. “This was not my decision; I did not create the zoning. I’m following what the city laid out, and I assume that they thought long and hard when they created these areas and they could have drawn the areas differently but they did not.”

Just outside of downtown, the topless bar Parkway Tropics has long stood as a West Side fixture at 814 Lake Michigan Drive NW. At 50 years, Parkway is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, nightclubs in the Grand Rapids area. When it opened in the ’50s, it was a nightclub featuring big band entertainment, and in the late ’60s was the only Grand Rapids club to feature go-go cage dancing, before slowly transitioning to exotic dancing.

“Being in business that long speaks volumes for how we mind our Ps and Qs and get along with our neighbors, especially being in a residential area,” general manager and second-generation co-owner Edward Sayfie explained. “We’ve tried to, and have, run our business efficiently, properly and tastefully.”

Although the presence of two topless bars could pit the Parkway Tropics and Sensations against each other, Sayfie is supportive of London’s plans.

“I think it would help our business,” Sayfie said. “We get a lot of people that go back and forth between our clubs. I’m sure he sees that same thing — growth is good, competition is healthy.”

“The Parkway will always be around,” London said. “They have their own audience and their own niche. And they will always be strong in the West Side neighborhood.”

Parkway Tropics’ main attractions include a pair of popular and sometimes fabled theme nights, the Wednesday Amateur Night (now known as Audition Night) and the Saturday Male Revue. The only establishment of its sort in Grand Rapids, Parkway has long been a weekend destination of bachelorette parties and “deer hunter widows.”

Both clubs have seen growth with the downtown revitalization. The 18-and-over Parkway has seen consistently increased crowds from both arena events and the establishment of Grand Valley State University’s downtown campus.

Sensations, on the other hand, has benefited primarily from the appearance of DeVos Place. With 20 percent of its patrons being out-of-towners, Sensations saw a marked drop when the Grand Center closed for renovation, and an immense and immediate impact when DeVos Place was finished.

“We knew the minute that the doors were back open,” London said.

With the majority of Grand Rapids’ hotel and motel rooms south of downtown, mostly along 28th Street, Sensations’ Centerpointe location has been popular with conventioneers despite its distance from downtown.

What Sensations isn’t able to capitalize on is the VanAndel Arena.

“If you have someone that drives a half hour or 45 minutes to see a concert or see a game from say, Big Rapids, which I don’t know if you would consider out of town or not, they are not going to drive another 20 minutes even if that’s the type of entertainment they are looking for,” London said. “We’ll pick up on those kinds of out-of-towners more than we do now.

“But it’s the whole downtown package,” he added. “The investment I’m making is pretty substantial. I wouldn’t make that kind of investment if it weren’t for everything going on downtown.”

Tini Bikinis has applied for a dance permit, which would allow its patrons to dance. It has not applied for a topless entertainment permit. 

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