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Wednesday, November 20,2013

Puritan Michigan

Local senator fears Lansing gay club’s fully nude dancing could be beginning of end of tourism industry. City officials play catch-up with court decision.

by Andy Balaskovitz
State Sen. Rick Jones isn’t exactly getting a warm reception locally to his claim that fully nude bars that serve alcohol would tarnish the state’s tourism industry.

Jones, a Grand Ledge Republican, said as much last week in reaction to a local nightclub that threw a party with four fully nude dancers to celebrate its 15th anniversary. The party happened due to a federal court ruling in December 2012 that said the Michigan Liquor Control Commission’s permitting process for topless activity was unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment.

Spiral Video and Dance Bar appears to be the first bar in Lansing that serves alcohol and features fully nude dancers, albeit for special occasions outside of its regular entertainment.

“We spend a great deal of money wanting to be known as ‘Pure Michigan’ where you take your family on vacation,” Jones said in an interview last week. “This certainly hurts that image.”

Jones is not against topless bars, he said, but he’s interested in keeping the “status quo” of keeping booze out of fully nude bars. He’s seeking statewide legislation that would do so. Federal Judge David Lawson last year ruled that the Michigan Liquor Control Commission’s permitting process for topless activities violated the First Amendment. Legal experts are keeping a close eye on such potential legislation, as it would have to be narrowly defined so it, too, would be constitutional.

Elsewhere in Lansing, D'j' Vu showcases fully nude dancing but does not serve alcohol. Omar’s Show Bar in the Stadium District serves alcohol but only features topless dancing.

Several people interviewed for this story either disagreed with Jones or were skeptical of his logic.

“The reality is, if someone wants to go to a strip club that serves alcohol, whether it’s fully nude or just topless, I don’t know if there’s that big of a difference in terms of attracting people to Michigan or not,” said state Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing. Moreover, Schor finds it “strange” that Jones is suggesting topless bars can be part of “Pure Michigan,” but bottomless ones can’t. “I don’t think it’s going to make a difference either way,” he said.

Brad Shafer, a local attorney specializing in First Amendment issues, added that “many of the people who do come here for tourism and conventions want that type of entertainment.”

He pointed to the city of Atlanta, which as recently as June reportedly held a contentious City Council vote that would have banned strip clubs in certain areas of the city. The Council voted the proposal down. “There was such a backlash from the business community. If there wasn’t a market for that type of entertainment, places wouldn’t exist in the first place.

“Whether politicians like it or not, that type of entertainment has First Amendment protections.”

Michael Brown, a Lansing attorney specializing in liquor control law, said of Jones: “It’s an interesting claim. I guess I’ll leave it at that. I don’t know that this industry is responsible for much of an impact on tourism one way or the other.”

Brown said it’s “hard to say” what form

a new state statute could take. “When the First Amendment is involved, obviously it has to be drafted very narrowly in order to pass constitutional muster, as they say.”

Whether bars can offer fully nude entertainment and serve alcohol varies by state, Brown and Shafer said.

Jack Schripsema, president of the Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau, declined to comment specifically on Jones’ claims. “Certainly the reputation and image of the city as being family friendly is very important to us,” he said.

Meanwhile, city officials are still reviewing what Lawson’s December 2012 ruling means for local rules related to fully nude entertainment.

Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said last week: “I don’t know if there are any answers right now for any of this.”

City Attorney Janene McIntyre said a local ordinance that allowed the city to request an establishment’s liquor license be revoked if it featured fully nude entertainers would have to be modified after Lawson’s ruling. However, local zoning could still restrict where such activities take place within the city, she said.

The city’s zoning ordinance related to adult businesses restricts them from being within 1,000 feet of each other or 300 feet from residentially zoned property, schools, libraries, parks, playgrounds, day care centers or churches. McIntyre could not say on Monday whether Spiral would be restricted from hosting those events based on zoning.

McIntyre’s staff is preparing an opinion for the City Council on ways it could potentially regulate nude entertainment.

It’s likely not going to happen this year, though, City Council President Carol Wood said Monday, as the Council winds down in the final month of its 2013 legislative session.

While Wood recalled an incident several years ago when the Silver Dollar Saloon was still open on Lansing’s east side near Frandor that required the Lansing Police Department to send in “special ops” to monitor activity there, “Some of what they were doing was not legal,” she said. As opposed to Spiral, which McIntyre said “had a legal right to hold their event.”

At City Hall, any talk of potential regulations is in beginning stages. Wood declined to comment on Jones’ position that it could hurt tourism here, but at least one other Councilwoman was more pointed.

“It obviously hasn’t hurt businesses in this town,” At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar said. “Why do you think so many people come to the Lansing Center for convention business? One of the key attractions, I’ve been told, is Omar’s.”

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