City Must 'Wise Up' On Strip Club Ordinance

March 15, 2006
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The city of Grand Rapids is embarking on a Don Quixote mission. It is a mission so expensive it has asked for and received private funds. Further, it is a mission the city already knows will not likely last the certain test it will be given in a court of law. Why?

Why indeed. The revenue-strapped commissioners are ready to review a new city anti-nudity ordinance aimed at strip clubs. The strip club at which the would-be ordinance is aimed is not likely to be built, given a major development now encompassing the club owner’s land, and the owner’s announced intention to sell it to the developer.

The city has hired a loser to assist this endeavor, attorney Scott Bergthold, who assisted the Louisville, Ky., Metro Council in writing a similar ordinance. That ordinance is now in its third court, the Kentucky Appeals Court, and one of its clauses has been thrown out by courts on every level. As reported last week in Grand Rapids Business Journal, similar ordinances have been struck down in Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Kalamazoo — and Grand Rapids, which very recently failed in its attempt to regulate Velvet Touch adult book store.

Bergthold helps some in the city fan the flames of public outrage by suggesting that unlawful activities (like prostitution and drug dealing) come to the doorstep of such businesses, but the facts do not bear out such fear-based perception pounding. To continue to scream “fire” in a crowded theater is not only lying, it’s criminal. As GRBJ reported last week, the Insurance Journal recently advocated underwriting “gentleman’s clubs” because they are a better risk than more “sophisticated” or “refined” entertainment counterparts. The Louisville Currier Journal reported that peer reviewed studies showed up to 70 percent less crime occurs around these venues, a point long-time Parkway Tropics strip club owner Edward Sayfee notes about his Lake Michigan Drive location.

Varnum, Riddering, Schmidt & Howlett attorney John Allen, a former Constitutional Law instructor at the University of Michigan, told the Business Journal the city also risks being sued for accepting private donations for this purpose. Allen said the donors to this purpose also could be sued. “If someone — I’ll use a strong word — conspires to cause a violation of the law or injure someone, then all the members of that conspiracy can be held personally liable.”

How the ordinance would apply to “parallel uses” is also of concern. Would the city prosecute, for instance, the JW Marriott proprietors? National reports show that 70 percent of in-room profits at hotel chains are provided by the sale of in-room pay-per-view adult films.

Another city entertainment business, a bar on Division Avenue, just a few years ago put bikini-clad young women on the street, to carry signs inviting customers to happy hour.

The city might instead consider targeting its limited funds on initiatives that focus on the activities it says it fears, prostitution and drug dealing… but then, the city is cutting the police department budget.

The Dominican nuns on Fulton Street offered to assist in the latter issues several years ago. The nuns wanted to provide housing and alternative employment to the women arrested for prostitution, a program that targeted the systemic issue. But their neighbors vehemently opposed, and the city refused the Dominicans the process for allowing such housing.

The revenue strapped commissioners are ready to review a new city anti-nudity ordinance aimed at strip clubs. Why?    

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