Friday, May 19, 2006

Full Frontal Assault On SOB's Is Called For If Change Is Going To Come

Yesterday, Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners had one of their infrequent joint meetings to discuss a bothersome issue for Memphis – the S-O-B’s.

The news they got was B-A-D.

In this case, we’re referring to S-O-B’s as in sexually-oriented businesses. The news from the consultants hired by the Office of Planning and Development was startling: Memphis is in the top three cities in the U.S. for “anything goes” in its sex clubs.

It’s not what the local legislators were expecting to hear, judging from the grim looks and incredulous comments. But then again, it’s been one of the worst-kept secrets in Memphis that strip clubs here are famous for their uninhibited, graphic behavior.

Over the years, there’s been periodic talk about regulating SOB’s, but it always fades away as suddenly as it begins. Normally, the public’s ire about this issue is raised when a business considers a suburban location. A double standard is seen when it comes to the rest of the city, and despite the talk, there’s been very little done to control the clubs on any level.

Three-time Loser

In that regard, Memphis is a three-time loser, failing in regulation, licensing and zoning. Put simply, it should really come as no surprise that things are completely out of control.

The nationally prominent consultants, after visiting Memphis’s sex clubs, said that Memphis is in the major leagues in public obscenity. Few cities rival ours, and the consultants’ recent work in Detroit showed that the city pales in comparison to Memphis.

In the clubs here, sex is ever present and ever available -- any kind, any way, any cost.

If you want food, you go to the kitchen and order it from the cook, because the woman serving your table is delivering services, but it’s not food. There is “full body contact” between male customers and female dancers on stage, frequently moving to a back room to complete the exchange of cash and bodily fluids.

In other words, if you’re wondering what takes place in these clubs, let your imagination run wild. You’re probably not imaginative enough to compile the list of activities taking place there.

The problem is basic. There are no checks and balances and no serious consequences in the current regulatory system.

Beer Board

The Memphis Beer Board – the regulatory body over these clubs – repeatedly slaps club owners on the wrists, collects the fines that it needs for its operations and sends the club owner back to his business. To the club owner, the fine is just another routine cost of business.

Unlike some cities, in Memphis, there is no “three strikes and you’re out” regulation, but even if there were, it’s hard to see the Beer Board applying it.

Here’s the normal scenario: someone is arrested inside a club for drugs or prostitution, usually by one of the only seven vice officers with Memphis Police Department. Notification of the arrest goes to the beer board, which shows a lack of concern that is as much of its make-up as its politically appointed members.

The Beer Board is headed up by Reginald French, plugged-in political operative and Democratic candidate for Shelby County Sheriff. Past performance of the board certainly does nothing to polish his law and order credentials.

Lessons from other cities show that the ones that have been effective in handling the SOB’s rely on a combination of aggressive enforcement of criminal obscenity laws and the type of stringent regulations that the consultants have written for other locales.

National Consultants

Eric Kelly and Connie Cooper, the consultants advising city and county planners on a course of action to control these clubs, have national credentials, and their work has been instrumental in other cities successfully balancing First Amendment issues with the interest of a community to regular SOB’s.

In fact, they wrote the book on this problem. Literally. It’s titled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Regulating Sex Businesses,” and it was released by the American Planning Association.

They tends to reject the term “adult entertainment,” a marketing term invented by the pornography industry, in favor of sexually oriented businesses, because it provides a useful acronym for these enterprises, which pose public health and safety hazards.

They describe activities in Memphis clubs as coming close to legalized prostitution, and it is this aspect of the clubs’ operations that are most troublesome, because two clubs are owned by rival gangs whose dancers may be coerced into working there.

They acknowledge that municipalities can’t legally prohibit sexually oriented businesses from building within their borders, but they can regulate where they are built, such as in commercial or industrial areas and away from schools, parks, playgrounds and churches.

Themes

Although recommendations from Mr. Kelly and Ms. Cooper won’t be presented until next month, several themes have already emerged in meetings discussing what could be done to help with this problem in Memphis. One, regulatory oversight should be removed from the ineffectual Beer Board and given to a public agency prepared to enforce and punish; two, existing zoning ordinances need to be fine tuned to restrict the location of these clubs and their operations; and three, clubs should be required to get a license or permit.

Surprisingly, none of the clubs is required to get a permit to get into the sex business. The required permit is to sell beer and food only, although the dancers have to get a permit. To compound enforcement efforts, if codes enforcement officials cite the businesses into court for violations, the maximum fine that can be levied against them is $50, because the Tennessee Legislature has refused to allow higher fines for code infractions.

Meanwhile, there are primary three local owners of these SOB’s, and they interchange ownership frequently with quit claim deeds so that codes regulations can’t be enforced in any meaningful way. Every time property ownership is changed, the clock starts running all over again.

Change

In other words, there are plenty of changes that need to be made if Memphis is to get serious about these problems, but the ability of cities to have some control over these businesses has widened as a result of U.S. Supreme Court rulings over the past 20 years.

Lately, the Office of Planning and Development has been showing a more aggressive side in its leadership, bringing in nationally known experts to help with issues from tax freezes to Broad Street revitalization to a new development code to sexually-oriented businesses. But high-quality information means nothing if elected officials don’t act on it.

Mr. Kelly and Ms. Cooper have exposed the ugly underbelly of Memphis to the light, and hopefully, government officials will take strong action to control the illegal activities in these clubs. Not only is it needed to address public health and safety issues, it’s needed to eradicate the ugly whispers in the halls of government about influence exerted by these club owners.

In the end, that’s the most insidious problem of all.

10 comments:

autoegocrat said...

My mother's first husband was murdered two days before he was scheduled to testify against a local strip club owner back in the 70's. My hunch, based on personal experience, is that the reason these clubs flourish is because they are backed by organized crime, and in Memphis, organized crime makes the rules.

If you really want to stop these S.O.B.s, then you must first stop the SOBs.

autoegocrat said...

It should be added that the convictions of the so-called murderers were overturned. The murder remains unsolved.

Smart City Consulting said...

There are no coincidences when it involves the owners of these clubs.

Anonymous said...

Howard Stern used to talk about how wild Memphis strip clubs were/are on his old radio show. The wildness of the Memphis strip clubs is common knowledge around the nation. I guess it is a combination of poverty, heavy doses of religion, and the city having a history of being a transportation hub. I work in a restaurant and have refered customers to Platinum Plus many times. Perhaps the strip clubs are a symbol of how corrupt politically and financially Memphis is. Nothing will change until corruption is seriously addressed. At this point, I'm not sure the Memphis and Shelby county political system could function without corruption.

Anonymous said...

My question is why should the gov't care what is happening between consenting adults? If one adult wants to pay another adult for a lap dance ... or more ... why should the gov't care?

Smart City Consulting said...

While we generally agree with the consenting adults theory, the reason that government has a voice in these questions is that they are not taking place in someone's private space, but in a public business. The link between these clubs and health problems and criminal activity is clear, but in addition, there is plenty of research that shows a direct correlation and neighborhood decay and property tax erosion. For these reasons and others, we believe that regulation is in the public interest.

Anonymous said...

A "public business"? The SOBs are private businesses with limited public access. For instance, no minors allowed.

I won't disagree that gov't regulation is ok in areas such as enforcement of cleanliness of the businesses but why should gov't interfere with a business transaction between adults. If I want to pay for a lap dance, it's my money.

You can always require monthly or weekly health inspections for the dancers. In my younger years, I checked out many such establishments and never came away with a health problem.

If you make an activity illegal or overregulated it, then duh - the criminals will run it.

I happened to be in Cordova the other day and noticed the Cristal's (sp?). The neighborhood wasn't falling apart. Typically they usually set up in areas that are already in decay ... they don't cause it.

A neighborhood is more likely to go downhill as a result of annexation than an establishment of an SOB.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: Sorry, we failed to edit this sentence. It was supposed to read: businesses open to the public. These are not private clubs or private homes or private spaces. They are public spaces, and as long as they are, they have to comply with public law and ordinances.

And, this isn't about lap dances. This about full frontal nudity, intercourse on stage, women intimidated to work there, etc. And as autoegocrat points out, the pervasive culture of violence is a constant threat to any one who stands between the club owners - and their ties to organized crime -and their profits.

This is an elemental point that you should not miss: criminals run these clubs now and have for years.

If you ask the other tenants in the area of the sex shop on Germantown Road, its presence has indeed had an impact on the success of that particular shopping area, and the area around Platinum Plus certainly deteriorated after it located there. Current Memphis law does not restrict the location of these clubs to highly industrial areas, which is where they belong.

Anonymous said...

A few points:

I've known quite a few strippers in the memphis area, but have failed to meet a single one that was coerced into working. Most of the ones that you're talking about were working girls far before they walked into the strip club for the first time.

I've never been touched in an illegal manner, nor have I 'swapped bodily fluid' in the VIP room. I've never seen, nor have I even heard any stories to this effect. I'm classifying this as hearsay, bordering bald faced lie. I'm sure you've convinced the bible thumping majority on this one though, so I can't really call it a loss on your part.

Also, this 'orginized crime' owner theory... if they're such well known criminals, why can't we make arrests for the crimes they've committed instead of harrassing the club patrons? Sounds like you're grasping for straws on this one.

And as for the neighborhood deteriorating? You've got me on this one. I do believe that we should have some industrial or segragated area that is zoned for adult businessess. That's just common sense. Boo to Memphis lawmakers on this one.

So, the solution to this issue?
Police have failed to do their job cracking down on gangs. Is it really that big of a suprise that the gangs are buying these clubs when the police are all but legitimizing their illegal ventures?
Lawmakers have failed to do their job creating zoning laws to allow the clubs to operate 'over there, so they don't have to do it over here'.
This gives me a lot to think about in the coming election year. Seems like the only parties doing their jobs right are the orginized criminals and the strippers.

-steven in memphis

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