City Goes Attacks Strip Clubs

December 16, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Fold up a dollar bill into a small paper airplane and let it fly at least six feet — call it the “Furniture City Tip.”

In response to a new adult entertainment complex under construction in downtown Grand Rapids, the city commission has framed an ordinance that would effectively outlaw the standard exotic dancing business model by forbidding dancers to accept tips, come within six feet of a customer, perform at ground level or appear in the nude. The proposed ordinance is to be reviewed at a public hearing in January.

The latest in a series of developments involving the adult entertainment industry that has already cost the city nearly $400,000 over the past five years, the ordinance was penned by the City Attorney’s office at the request of the Black Hills Citizens for a Better Community.

It prohibits nudity, requiring at the least g-strings and “pasties.” It also imposes restrictions on peep show booths.

In August, the commission passed a resolution condemning nude entertainment, but did not appear to be further pursuing the issue.

“(Black Hills Executive Director) Judy Rose and her group have been working hard coming before us and giving us reasons for this ordinance,” said Second Ward Commissioner Rick Tormala. “They kept it alive.”

An industrial zone currently surrounds the Sennett Steel building at

234 Market Ave. NW
, where Mark London, former Grand RapidsCommunity College division chairman and proprietor of the topless club Sensations at CenterPointe Mall, plans to build a full-nude “juice bar” and retail shop. The Black Hills neighborhood is separated from the space by roughly a mile of industrial use and two neighborhood associations, RooseveltPark and Heartside. Although developer Joe Moch Sr. has hopes to build a four-story mixed use facility nearby at
248 Williams St. SW
, there is currently no residential property within several blocks of the site.

Rose was joined at last Wednesday’s commission briefing by Dar Vander Ark, executive director of the Michigan Decency Action Council and LeightonTownship supervisor, who introduced himself as a “20-year smut-buster.” VanderArk, a 27-year LeightonTownship resident, worked with the city to draft the ordinance.

“These people have way too much influence over the city commission,” London said. “How do (non-residents) keep getting audiences with the city?”

The commission appeared to be in support of the ordinance, but had some apprehension about enforcing it.

“We’re going to have to determine as policymakers whether or not to enact this,” Tormala said. “I respect the work that has been done and encourage that work that has been done so far, but we have a fiduciary responsibility to the general fund.”

The city recently lost a long court battle with the Velvet Touch adult book store, costing it $150,000 for legal representation and $125,000 to pay the attorney fees of Velvet Touch. Following that decision, in which the city’s Master Plan was deemed unconstitutional, the city was forced to amend zoning regulations to allow adult use — an additional cost of nearly $100,000, according to City Attorney Phil Balkema. That cost was to outside counsel Scott Bergthold of Tennessee, an adult entertainment specialist who also helped to write last week’s proposed ordinance.

Tormala said that after January’s public hearing, the ordinance likely will be tabled until the Black Hills group and the decency action council can raise the funds to finance the city’s legal defense against an expected challenge — which Balkema estimated to cost at least $100,000.

“I think if we have the cash on hand, they would be willing and able,” Jan Ellis said of the commissioners. Ellis sits on the Black Hills association board, but is not a city resident.

In a unique “Price of Government” model, the city is stipulating that it will be willing to pass regulations against private business if private funds are provided to enforce those regulations. London, a former criminal justice instructor for the GRCC and Michigan State Police academies and a former state patrol officer, doubts the legality of such a model.

Tormala argued that the ordinance would not violate citizen rights.

“The majority of us try to balance constitutional rights with what’s necessary to maintain the kind of community the neighborhoods want in Grand Rapids,” he said. “What is being suggested is not banning these activities but regulating the most onerous ones, the ones that are almost quasi-prostitution.”

He believes that many people don’t realize that the sex trade is a powerful business which exploits and denigrates people of both sexes. However, he did not say the businesses in question — most prominently Sensations, the Parkway Tropics at 814 Lake Michigan Drive NW and the Red Barn Adult Theatre at 928 28th St. SE — directly contribute to prostitution, but believes they do lead to the deterioration of neighborhoods.

“That’s primarily what Grand Rapids is concerned about,” he said. “Our primary responsibility is not to be the sexual police, but to help prevent neighborhood deterioration.”

No business would be hurt more by the ordinance than the Parkway Tropics. Its main stage is at ground level and only about a dozen feet end-to-end. There is no stage access from the dressing room, so an all-but-complete renovation would be required to comply with the regulations.

The regulations are directly aimed at an establishment like the Parkway Tropics, which is nestled in a residential neighborhood. But in its 50 years in operation, it has had little apparent impact on that neighborhood.

“They’ve been a good neighbor,” said Tim Sluiter, community organizer for Southwest Area Neighbors. “From a crime and quality of life standpoint, it hasn’t had any effect on us.”

He noted that the last time there was an issue, involving the silhouette of a naked woman on signage in 2000, the club agreed with the association without argument, and painted on a skirt.

Later in the briefing, commissioners learned from VanderArk that the regulations could bring some unwanted attention to the region. He recounted how busloads of exotic dancers appeared on the capital steps in Lansing in 2000 and 2001 when the Michigan House of Representatives attempted to pass similar legislation.

He didn’t believe that would be the case in Grand Rapids, as the other regulation was statewide. But a Grand Rapids protest could unite political rivals London, an ardent Republican, and Red Barn proprietor Chip Walker, a Democrat who sits on the board of the industry’s lobbying group, the Association of Club Executives.

“I don’t think the city realizes what they’re getting themselves into,” London said. “They’re stepping into quicksand and might not ever be able to get out.”    

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