Secret Efforts Oppose Strip Club

March 6, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — The city of Grand Rapids has become entwined in a pair of mysterious initiatives that concern Grand Rapids businessman Mark London's downtown property.

London, the proprietor of Sensations strip club at Centerpointe Mall, has been slowly developing the former Sennett Steel building at

234 Market Ave. SW
into a full-nude "juice bar" and retail shop.

His property sits squarely in the middle of a potentially 30-acre mixed-use development that high-ranking city officials have been secretly working on with an unknown developer for well over a year. Central to the project is a 19-acre parcel of city-owned land at

201 Market Ave. SW
— directly across the street.

Although construction continues unabated on the adult entertainment complex, London has been actively negotiating sale of his property to the development interest, spearheaded by local Grubb & Ellis/Paramount broker Deborah Shurlow and attorneys from the Atlanta office of Powell Goldstein LLP.

Meanwhile, the city has penned an ordinance that will effectively outlaw London's intended business model, funded by an unusual partnership with the Black Hills Citizens for a Better Community and the Michigan Decency Action Council.

London did not speculate on whether the ordinance was intended to clear space for the development, but admitted that he was suspicious of the coincidental timing. Mayor George Heartwell, the only city official known to be involved in both initiatives, did not return repeated calls for comment.

The latest in a series of developments that has already cost the city nearly $400,000 over the past five years, the ordinance forbids dancers from accepting tips, to come within six feet of a customer, perform at ground level or appear in the nude, requiring G-strings and "pasties." It was originally brought before the city commission in December. At the time, commissioners were supportive, but feared another expensive court battle such as the one it recently lost with the Velvet Touch adult bookstore.

Despite being roughly a mile and two neighborhood associations removed from the Sennett site, the Black Hills group proposed to raise the necessary funds to defend the ordinance against an almost certain legal challenge from the city's adult entertainment venues.

Grand Rapids City Attorney Phil Balkema estimated the cost at between $100,000 and $150,000. Heartwell said he would bring the ordinance back to the city commission if $100,000 could be raised.

Late last month, Black Hills Executive Director Judy Rose announced that $93,000 had been pledged by a dozen individuals, with two large donations. As such, the ordinance will be formally proposed at tomorrow's city commission meeting. Most of the fund is in the form of written or verbal pledges, but little cash.

"When this goes through, I bet he'll sell it and get out of there," Rose said of London

Rose did not reveal the identity of any of the donors, or if any of the $93,000 was related to the mystery developer.

"I really don't think so, but how would I know?" she said.

London declined to comment on the development, but did point out that Rose's group was still $7,000 shy of the goal Heartwell had set.

"Judy Rose hasn't reached the point they told her to," he said. "What's changed that they are going to push this forward now?"    

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