May 11, 2007
City to SOBs: Move it or lose it

The long-awaited crackdown on sexually oriented businesses is officially underway, and it's aggressive.

The city has ordered more than 100 adult cabarets, bookstores and other so-called sexually oriented businesses to close down their operations or face criminal and civil penalties, according to warning letters obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

City Attorney Arturo Michel's office mailed the certified letters on Thursday, stating that the businesses were violating an ordinance prohibiting them from operating within 1,500 feet of schools, parks, churches and other "sensitive" locations in the city.

The cease-and-desist letters mean that employees and owners of the businesses face arrest "soon" if they fail to heed the city's notice, said Capt. Steve Jett, who commands the Houston Police Department's vice unit.

"They need to close up," he said. "We wanted to give them fair warning."

Matt Stiles has a link to a list of the businesses that received the letter. There are a few curiosities on it, so it's probably not gospel, but close enough. If you're looking for one last fling at your favorite strip club, for old times' sake, better not wait too long.

Club owners and attorneys reached late Thursday declined to comment out of fear they could jeopardize their employees and businesses first. Some also have notified [federal judge Nancy] Atlas' court that they intend to appeal her ruling.

A manager at one establishment said he was disappointed to hear of the city's crackdown.

"It's hard to legislate morality," said Thomas Venza, a manager at Centerfolds Adult Entertainment, in the 6100 block of Richmond. "If you don't agree with it, don't go."

At least nine businesses have filed new lawsuits in state courts here in recent weeks, challenging the ordinance's provision for "amortization," a process by which the city could let clubs operate for a period after the law takes effect so owners can recoup their investments before moving or closing.

I'm not sure how much juice there is left in the legal wrangling aspect of this. As you know, I think this is a bad ordinance, and I hate the ruling, but I don't see how it gets overturned. I also wonder, if this law were to be put up for a vote how it would fare. Not that it matters, I suppose. I'm just pondering.

Privately, industry officials said they think the city's crackdown is unfair, noting that they are lawful businesses that contribute millions of dollars to the local economy through employment and sales taxes.

Some also decry that all such businesses are linked together in one ordinance.

They see a distinction between adult cabaret clubs, which require multiple permits because their businesses depend on liquor and food sales, from modeling studios and spas, some of which police say are nothing more than fronts for prostitution.

Those distinctions have not been important to elected officials and police, who plan to begin enforcement as soon as next week.

I don't think there's anything "private" about how "industry officials" feel about this law. They're getting screwed, and they've put ten years of courtroom fighting into preventing it. For what it's worth, I think their view is largely correct. I just don't think it's any big secret.

As before, I wouldn't consider the comments to be particularly indicative of public opinion, but one comment, on page two (I can't link to it directly, as far as I can tell), is intriguing:

The current plan is for all of the clubs to turn into "bikini bars." All will be the same, except for no truly topless dancers. When this happens, and the dancers are "clothed" all bets are off for rules about touching customers, etc. They can no longer be regulated by Vice & TABC as Sexually Oriented Businesses. In other words... anything goes!

While I think that would keep some clubs in business, my guess is most of them would still fold, though perhaps not right away. I dimly recall a TV news story shortly after the original ordinance was passed that informed us that the male-stripper club La Bare was not technically an SOB because the dancers were sufficiently covered. Maybe Treasures et al can ask them for a few pointers about that.

UPDATE: Do the Rockets Power Dancers have anything to worry about? Get me Captain Jett on the line!

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 11, 2007 to Local politics