Showgirls Gallerias Soft Launch

April 14, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Hours after receiving a temporary occupancy permit from the city, The Showgirls Galleria strip club and retail store opened its doors. It had been the subject of a prolonged public debate over the most controversial launch of a business ever in downtown Grand Rapids and the existence of adult entertainment within city limits as a whole.

On its first day, there were fewer than a dozen patrons that had somehow heard about the opening. The sound system wasn't completely installed yet, and a set of home stereo speakers were rigged for the occasion. Beverages were served from a mini-cooler next to the stage.

Nonetheless, it's open.

"I'm going to maintain very few hours, a limited schedule so that I can get it done the way that I want it," said Mark London, proprietor of both the downtown club and the Sensations strip club near Centerpointe Mall. "But I did want to get the word out; quite frankly, it's part of protecting my constitutional rights."

The first stage in a soft launch leading to a full-capacity grand opening at the end of the month, the $4 million renovation of the former Sennett Steel plant at

234 Market Ave. SW
is all but complete, and will be open for limited hours through the next month.

London has said the downtown location will mesh nicely with the city's convention business.

Slightly different from the soft launches of most every restaurant or bar, London's timetable concerns not just training and logistics, but also the city commission's vote on a controversial city ordinance to regulate adult entertainment.

Written to ban nudity and touching, with several other regulations concerning facilities and operations, the ordinance is the latest development in a two-year battle between London and a partnership between city officials, the Michigan Decency Action Council and the Black Hills Citizens for a Better Community.

A Grand RapidsCommunity College administrator for the first seven years Sensations was open, London did everything he could to keep a low profile. Now, political posturing and his involvement in last month's failed land deal in the RiverGrand project has made the once reclusive entrepreneur a public figure, with millions of dollars of free publicity from every media outlet in the region.

"It'll definitely help us with the opening," London said. "But I think we were going to be pretty busy anyway. Now we might be a little too busy; I'm trying my best for a soft launch."

Such exposure is unusual for adult entertainment, he explained, where marketing is done primarily through sparse advertising and word-of-mouth. Showgirls Galleria, for instance, won't even have a sign when it fully opens. Granted, the building will be hard to miss with its purple and hot-pink exterior.

A matching canopy will be draped over the U at the center of the building, leading into an indoor parking area and

Market Avenue
entrance. The facility has free indoor parking for 79 vehicles, plus a 90-space surface lot on
Finney Street

Inside, London believes he has the makings of a regional attraction. The facility has 20,000 square feet of developed space, including roughly 6,000 square feet of retail and the 8,000-square-foot strip club. The two-story club has a multi-level stage with full dressing room, adjacent pool tables, "champagne rooms," big-screen TVs and "shower shows."

A portion of the club space has been partitioned for use as a buffet.

"There isn't anything comparable this side of Las Vegas," London said. "People will drive an hour just for this."

That would be more likely, London admitted, if the club were to convert from a full-nude juice bar to topless bar with liquor license. In the coming weeks, London will make a second go at the liquor license he was denied in 2004.

When the city rewrote the zoning code after a federal court deemed it unconstitutional, following a lawsuit brought by the Velvet Touch Adult Bookstore, it created an odd Catch-22 for strip clubs: Nudity was a permitted use allowed only in industrial zones, where serving alcohol was not. London did not seek a zoning variance at the time, opting to wait until the club was ready to open.

Aiding London in this task is Sterling Heights attorney Gregory Fisher Lord, who represented the Velvet Touch in its successful lawsuit against the city. Lord will also represent London in any litigation involving the adult-use ordinance, setting up a rematch with the city's counsel, Tennessee attorney Scott Bergthold.

"If it comes to this, I hope we go before the same judge," London said. "This is an opportunity to establish case law and teach our elected officials something about the First Amendment. … This (ordinance) isn't something Grand Rapids needs; this is a clean, moral town with no history of enforcement against any of the strip clubs.

"If we get the same attorneys back in the same court in front of the same judge arguing the same exact issues from the Velvet Touch case, that might be enough to set a precedent so that we don't have this type of thing happen again."

The club will employ 35 workers, not including roughly 100 dancers who will not be directly employed by the club.    

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