Despite lure of cash, more cities battling strip clubs

In trying to break the Pink Pony, Georgia’s newest city has become the latest to attempt to buck the mutually profitable arrangement between local governments and nude dancers.

Brookhaven voted in May to toughen its adult entertainment ordinance by banning alcohol at nude dancing establishments. It also has since limited where such businesses will be allowed to go.

That puts it in the ranks with Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Doraville – cities that have adopted similar laws in a Bible Belt bid to chase naked shimmying from their borders.

The dancing has gone on, though, as clubs in every city have fought back in court. It also will continue at the Pink Pony, the only strip club in Brookhaven. The 22-year-old club has sued in DeKalb County Superior Court to stop the city’s law from taking effect.

The club had been paying DeKalb County “$455,000 in licensing every year,” said Aubrey Villines, a First Amendment attorney representing the Pink Pony. “The economic impact if they close us down is going to be massive.”

“It’s an enormous business,” said Harvey Newman, a public policy professor at Georgia State University who has written a book on the metro region’s economic development. “The city and the region have used this as a way for making money for a long, long time.”

Concern over losing those jobs was a factor in the Atlanta City Council’s recent rejection of a proposal to boot seven adult businesses from Cheshire Bridge Road.

Representatives from eight adult clubs estimated they paid $3 million to the county every year. But those numbers have changed, whittled down to five clubs — through annexations and the creation of Brookhaven —paying $2 million for the license and other permits.

The county now bans new adult clubs and also has the right to gradually step up fees on the existing ones.

Like Brookhaven, the DeKalb once had visions of stripping adult clubs from the landscape as a way to encourage more high-end development. But it didn’t have the cash, or the stomach, for a lengthy legal fight.

In 2001, the clubs agreed to pay $100,000 annually for an adult entertainment license in exchange for being grandfathered into business.

“We don’t view it as a strategy as much as it is honoring the 2001 agreement we signed that allows the current strip clubs to operate and not allowing any new clubs to open in the county,” said county spokeswoman Jill Strickland Luse.

Brookhaven became a city in December in large part to exert more local control over government.

But while it has yet to set up a police department and will not take over parks until next year – two services prioritized by cityhood supporters – it quickly enacted two local laws designed to tackle the “negative” effects of adult businesses.

Mayor J. Max Davis said city leaders hadn’t considered those problems until a Tennessee attorney who has helped draft laws against the clubs for other cities raised concerns about crimes and issues that he said are tied to such establishments. The city borders had been drawn to intentionally include the club and the adjacent office park, both for the revenue to make the city viable.

The city’s goal is to protect its residents and image while also promoting better development for that area.

“We passed an ordinance we believe is fair,” Davis said.

Brookhaven officials cite appellate decisions that upheld similar laws in the other cities. But the state Supreme Court has yet to decide the matter pending in any of those jurisdictions.

Adult businesses are a popular topic before the state’s highest court, which has ruled both that nude dancing is a constitutionally protected freedom of expression and that localities can restrict alcohol licenses at adult clubs.

But the last time a city won its battle to adopt local laws that shut down adult clubs was Marietta’s victory– in 1997.

Since then, Newman said, adult clubs have become seen as less seedy and more kitschy by some. That includes including stay-at-home mother Pat Kennedy of Brookhaven.

The Pink Pony is known for its neon ponies, lit to gallop across the entryway of the club. A smattering of small businesses, including a defunct Mexican restaurant, obscures the garish fuchsia from traffic on Buford Highway. Leafy hardwoods and a curving street hide it from an office park on the other side, toward I-85.

“I think the Pony is almost as much a landmark as the Clermont Lounge,” Kennedy said, comparing the club to the Atlanta icon. “Gentlemen’s clubs have been synonymous with Atlanta for a long, long time.”

Conventional wisdom has held that the metro region’s strip clubs have prospered from, well, conventions. It also helps that full nudity is allowed in clubs that serve alcohol, unlike the more common partial-nudity in other cities, bar owners say.

Whatever the reason, more exotic and nude dance clubs operate in and around Atlanta than anywhere in the country, according to the industry trade group the Association of Club Executives.

That doesn’t mean, though, they should stay, said Leanne Hussion, another stay-at-home mom from Brookhaven.

“For me, one of the benefits of a city of Brookhaven is having the ability to clean things up,” Hussion said. “This is one of those things that needs cleaned up.”

Redevelopment, not prudishness, is the driving force behind wanting less gyrating and more traditional jobs, said Sandy Springs city Attorney Wendell Willard.

Sandy Springs became the grandfather of the cityhood movement in 2005 after decades of complaints about Fulton County zoning decisions. Among the chief complaints was the hodgepodge along Roswell Road, home to two of the city’s three adult clubs.

The city crafted an ordinance to ban alcohol at the clubs shortly after it incorporated. But it has yet to act on its law because the legal battle has now stretched into its seventh year, with cases pending in both state and federal court.

“It’s a community question: What’s more important to have, this revenue coming in or to have more control over the standards of your community development,” Willard said.

Sandy Springs has spent an estimated $400,000 on litigation in those seven years. By contrast, DeKalb gets about that much every year from each of its club, owners said.

Club owners haven’t complained about the cost and have continued to thrive – pumping money into their own pockets and to county coffers at a time when other sources of money, such as property taxes, have plunged.

“We don’t spend a dime on advertising, and you can’t get in the parking lot,” said Steve Younglin, the owner of Follies on Buford Highway. “I hate the drama. I just want to run my business.”

Villines said the Pink Pony’s owners want the same thing and had expected as much because they were covered by the DeKalb agreement until Brookhaven drew it into the city borders.

The owners need to recoup recent investments in the club and have requested de-annexation as a possibility, he added.

City officials announced Thursday that they will not enforce the new law while the case is pending. On Monday, the city filed a request to dismiss the Pink Pony’s suit.

But the city has girded for a fight and is not expected to approve de-annexation, a necessary step to that process.

“They’re going to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend this,” said Alan Begner, another First Amendment lawyer representing the Pink Pony. “It’s going to take years.”