Georgia town's 1 strip club is booted

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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.

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A backhoe waits to remove the strip club sign. The town's residents were embarrassed that they had been duped.  Associated Press
Associated Press
A backhoe waits to remove the strip club sign. The town's residents were embarrassed that they had been duped.

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."

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pofwe
5
Points
pofwe 09/08/08 - 07:35 am
0
0
Middleman, Stacey Britt, what

Middleman, Stacey Britt, what a deal(er).

3M3T1B
9
Points
3M3T1B 09/08/08 - 10:08 am
0
0
So let me get this straight.

So let me get this straight. This town spent a million dollars over x number of years trying to shut down a place that they don't go to anyway? And if the local towns people didn't patronize this strip club, who did? How did they stay in business?

pauldrake
0
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pauldrake 09/08/08 - 11:41 am
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kinda like the moral idiots

kinda like the moral idiots who want to keep the xmart closed,but keep the disgusting 500 block of broad st open.i guess the taxes and revenue from down there are a little more than out on gordon hwy.

ListenAndLearn
0
Points
ListenAndLearn 09/08/08 - 05:14 pm
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3M, it's off I-85, that's

3M, it's off I-85, that's where the patrons came from. They spent a lot more than 1M between the lawsuits & the actual sale. The sale itself was 995K. pauldrake, where's the comparisson? This city was duped into something they didn't want, & fought back the best way they could. Augusta can't make up it's mind what it wants or where it wants it. There is a difference between stip clubs that have been here forever & Xmart, I doubt it's the revenue.

PTHS2
0
Points
PTHS2 09/08/08 - 06:34 pm
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Forget about the 500-600

Forget about the 500-600 block of Broad St in relation to X-Mart. How about the pristine establishments that flank it on Gordon Hwy?

PTHS2
0
Points
PTHS2 09/08/08 - 06:37 pm
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"Skeeters Big Biscuits" is a

"Skeeters Big Biscuits" is a pretty good name for a newdie cafe I must admit though. lol

ListenAndLearn
0
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ListenAndLearn 09/08/08 - 07:00 pm
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0
PTHS, how true. Most are

PTHS, how true. Most are about the only place a sex offender can live. Can't have an Xmart next to those pervs. They might just leave the kids alone if they get their jollies on a film.

TrukinRanger
1748
Points
TrukinRanger 09/08/08 - 07:47 pm
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Cafe Risque was right off of
Unpublished

Cafe Risque was right off of I-85 and had a lot of truck drivers pull in there. This was a waste of money. It provided quality entertainment for the traveling public. Maybe now that it's closed... they can start taxing those churches!!!!!!!!!!!

PTHS2
0
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PTHS2 09/08/08 - 07:56 pm
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Trukin - LOL! Right on. The

Trukin - LOL! Right on. The food was actually good too.....

kat30815
14
Points
kat30815 09/09/08 - 12:07 am
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okay, i agree the guy was

okay, i agree the guy was pretty clever and misled the city. he shouldn't have done that but he did it anyway.
the city on the other hand, has to be some of the dumbest business people ever known to man. they have spent at least $1 million, possibly even $1.2 million, to close a strip club. a business that has to pay taxes, use water and sewage, maybe even city garbage. its a place that employed people. yep, some single mom probbably fed her kids from the money she made there. im sure it offended some churches, but when was the last time your church made your rent payment?

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