Georgia town's 1 strip club is booted

LAVONIA, Ga. --- The windowless building that once housed the town's only strip club sits empty in the middle of a sprawling gravel parking lot, made all the uglier by the scars from its final party.

This summer, a mob led by the mayor tore down gaudy billboards advertising topless dancers, put plywood over glass doors bearing a nude silhouette and purged the awnings proclaiming the name of the club -- Cafe Risque -- in a diesel-fueled bonfire.

Seven years after Lavonia was duped into allowing the strip club to open, it got even by secretly buying the club in a backhanded property swap. It cost the town $1 million, or roughly a third of Lavonia's annual budget. The deal could have come cheaper if Lavonia hadn't gone through a middleman.

But Mayor Ralph Owens says it was worth it.

Interstate 85 brushes by Lavonia on its way out of northeast Georgia and has fueled some growth there. But the 10 churches within a shout of downtown -- that's nearly a church for every 200 people -- still have only a handful of shops and a few sit-down restaurants for neighbors.

That's why the Florida businessman who came to town in 2001 seemed so promising. Jerry Sullivan vowed to build a mom-and-pop restaurant geared toward families, and drummed up support for the idea by presenting the plan to locals.

Linda LeCroy, who works at a downtown jewelry store, still remembers the Southern name he pitched: "Skeeter's Big Biscuits."

"I was excited," she says now, shaking her head. "We all were."

Inspectors who took a final look found a typical restaurant: a few tables, a stocked kitchen, a small counter area.

By the next morning, the place had transformed. A makeshift stage hugged its walls with poles for the dancers. The lunch counter was replaced by a bar. Neon signs graced the walls and four stalls in the back served as changing rooms.

Mr. Sullivan died in his sleep in 2006 but his attorney, Gary Edinger, says this sort of trickery is the norm for the industry.

"He duped them. Very intentionally," says Mr. Edinger, a Florida lawyer who has represented strip clubs for 17 years. "When you go in and say you want to open a strip club, it never gets opened. But if you merely open, through subterfuge or whatever, there's not much that can be done."

Mr. Owens, who has led Lavonia since the late 1980s, quickly dispatched police to close the place down. The tussle soon landed in federal court, where a judge ruled as others before him, that nude dancing is a constitutionally protected form of expression.

Soon billboards in red, yellow and black colors were posted along the highway, trumpeting the club's wares. Neighbors, already irritated they had been outsmarted, grew even more upset.

The city filed at least four more lawsuits, at a cost of thousands of dollars in legal fees, and never won a lasting victory.

Then Lavonia's elders learned the club's owners wanted to sell but figured they wouldn't want to negotiate with the city.

Mr. Owens turned to a middleman, Stacey Britt, to buy the club himself and then turn it over to the city. On July 29, he bought the club for $762,000 and sold it hours later to the city for $995,000, making a cool profit of close to a quarter of a million dollars.

The city paid for its share through a bond for a water treatment upgrade, which could end up costing Lavonia $1.2 million in interest payments.

"We're in an economic turndown and here we decide to spend $1 million. Was that the best use of funds?" shrugs Gary Fesperman, the city manager since 2000. "It's an investment, and it's something we had to do."

The proud new owner of Cafe Risque called a town meeting after the sale, and all the churches in Lavonia advertised it. A standing-room-only crowd of dozens showed up to city hall and rewarded the mayor and his council with a standing ovation when they announced the deal.

Then the mayor led about 50 citizens a few miles down the road. The group counted down from 10 and tore down the cafe's 12-foot-wide sign. They poured diesel on it and watched it go up.

Mr. Owens and his council hope to recoup the costs by selling the building, which sits on a 4.6 acre plot near the highway.

The town also has come up with a rezoning scheme that will likely ward off strip clubs by limiting them to two spots: An industrial area near the railroad tracks, and behind a chicken hatchery on the outskirts of town.

You can fool Lavonians once, but now they're certain another Cafe Risque won't open without their blessing.

"It was a disgrace, it was embarrassing," says Ms. LeCroy. "It's the best money this town has ever spent. Whatever it took to get rid of it, we'll make it back. It's just money."