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Vice: Strip clubs in Florida

Corporate Touch

Angelina Spencer, executive director of the Association of Club Executives, says Florida’s number of licensed clubs has held steady at about 110 for years. It will be hard for the number to grow because communities limit how close they can operate near schools, day cares and churches — and because of liquor ordinances, nudity ordinances and other regulations. Spencer says, for example, that if you want to bring a strip club to unincorporated Collier County, “you better have about $2 million for the legal fight.”

Florida’s only primary strip club market — in a league with markets like Las Vegas, Houston and New York — is Miami. It leads the state in the number of strip clubs, followed by Tampa. Overlooked hot spots in Florida include Jacksonville and Pensacola. “There’s quite a few clubs in that area, but they’re very quiet,” Spencer says.

The largest strip club in Florida and the nation is Tootsie’s, a 74,000-sq.- ft. club in Miami Gardens. It has 200 employees, 200 entertainers, 1,500 customers on a weekend night and 300 on average for Friday lunch, the busiest lunch of the week. The move toward upscale strip clubs dates back decades, but Tootsie’s owner, publicly traded RCI Hospitality Holdings, is taking them to another level.

RCI earlier this year purchased Scarlett’s Cabaret in Hallandale in Broward County five miles from Tootsie’s for $25.95 million. According to RCI, the 25,000-sq.-ft. Scarlett’s in the previous 12 months had more than $6 million in profit before taxes, interest and depreciation on $13 million in revenue. It instantly became RCI’s second-largest club behind Tootsie’s.

The clubs nowadays draw more couples, women and even bachelorette parties, says south Florida-based Ed Anakar, president of RCI Management Services, the subsidiary that manages RCI’s clubs. When dance clubs close for the night, Tootsie’s and Scarlett’s see a rush of people who want to party on. Scarlett’s stays open until 8 a.m. on weekends. “People find adult clubs more acceptable,” Anakar says. “Instead of going to a South Beach nightclub, you go into a similar atmosphere.” The sports bar within Tootsie’s lays claim to being Florida’s largest. It packs them in for events like the Mayweather-McGregor fight.

In keeping with the “more acceptable” face, south Florida strip clubs are joining forces this month for a golf tournament to raise money for hurricane victims. During Irma, Tootsie’s, which has a large parking deck, provided a safe harbor for first responders and their vehicles taking refuge from the peak of the storm. “We have a large, hospital-sized generator,” Anakar says.

He says RCI wants to acquire more south Florida clubs. It’s easier to buy an established place already allowed by law than to pioneer a new location. “We feel south Florida is a great market,” Anakar says.

Covered Up

A Broward community’s battle with two strip clubs lasted more than 30 years.

The busy intersection of Federal Highway and Oakland Park Boulevard is “Main-on-Main” for the city of Oakland Park, a Fort Lauderdale suburb. For decades, the area around the junction has been home to an iconic circular office building, a mall, the road east to the beach and, to the city’s chagrin, two prominent strip clubs — Pure Platinum and Solid Gold — controlled off and on by Michael J. Peter, a legend in the strip club industry.

A Cornell University hospitality school grad, Peter, according to the Association of Club Executives, a strip club industry group, is “considered by many to be the forefather of the modern gentlemen’s club.” At one point, he owned six clubs in south Florida alone. He was featured on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and had a yacht, jet, Ferrari and Rolls-Royce. He went to prison on federal mail fraud charges, only to win on appeal.

For 30 years, long before the eastern side of Broward even needed redeveloping, Oakland Park tried to shed itself of the two clubs. Successive attempts at regulation ended up halted in court until 2015, when courts backed new licensing regulations the city had enacted, finding the regulations advanced a substantial government interest in combatting secondary effects of sexually oriented businesses.

The sites of Peter’s clubs were sold to developers who plan to build a chain restaurant and a mixed-use, family-friendly project. Efforts to obtain comment from Peter weren’t successful.

D.J. Doody, Oakland Park’s city attorney and a shareholder with Goren, Cherof, Doody & Ezrol in Fort Lauderdale, says Florida should expect, as cities seek to redevelop, a reduction in the number of “adult entertainment” businesses through the regulation of alcohol sales. “I think it’s an irreversible trend,” Doody says.

Peter didn’t wind up out of business. He relocated, under the Solid Gold banner, five miles away in Pompano Beach, which has its own renewal going with multi-million dollar beach redevelopment work, a pier rebuilding, a new library and cultural center and private sector developments. Peter’s club, however, sits west of I-95 in an industrial park. His blog reported the June opening drew a standing-room only crowd who witnessed “100 of Florida’s most beautiful entertainers.”

Redressing Their Grievances

Strippers sue to be paid minimum wage.

Tampa attorney W. John Gadd makes his living on cases of consumer and labor law. A couple of years ago, he sat down with a new client, a stripper with a grievance, and asked the routine questions a lawyer asks to learn what kind of legal remedies might be available.

“Wait a minute. You don’t get paid anything? It’s all tips?” he remembers asking. Gadd says he was dumbfounded. He learned that while some strippers who look and perform well enough can make good money; others make very little for “the privilege of getting on stage and undressing.” Strippers at some clubs pay for stage time and make required tips to managers and D.J.s. “Could it really be that we have a whole industry in the Tampa/Clearwater area that’s in flagrant violation of the law? The more I learned about it, the more egregious it seemed to be,” he says.

The cases Gadd brought are but a trickle in a wave of labor suits that have hit the strip club industry in Florida and nationally. From Key West up through southeast Florida and on to Tampa Bay, clubs have been settling with dancers as individuals and as members of a class action — and with their lawyers, who get a considerable cut — over minimum pay violations.

The clubs in question for years treated dancers as independent contractors, but attorneys for the dancers say their clients don’t remotely fit the legal tests for that classification.

In 2015, Scarlett’s Cabaret in Hal- landale and two affiliated clubs settled a class-action suit for $6 million. Dancers were paying $55 to dance, $20 to the D.J. and a handful of dollars to each security guard, according to reports. Key West club owner Red Garter Saloon settled for $1.2 million last year.

The industry says it’s being sued like Uber and other businesses by attorneys who’ve found a meal ticket in bringing such actions. Angelina Spencer, executive director of industry group National Association of Club Executives, says clubs themselves are divided “pretty evenly” among those who classify dancers as employees and those who view them as independent contractors. National chain Déjà vu Consulting, parent of more than 60 clubs across the country including two in Tampa, earlier this year reached a proposed $6.5-million settlement covering as many as 50,000 dancers.

What’s notable about that case is an attempt, awaiting judicial approval, to establish clear rules for determining which dancers will be classified as employees and which as contractors.

Gadd’s interview with the stripper wound up in a lawsuit. He represented a dancer who sued Diamond Dolls and another who sued Baby Dolls, both Clearwater establishments. Both cases settled on undisclosed terms.

“What always struck me about this one is it’s right in front of your face and everyone knows it except the dancers,” Gadd says. “The case law is squarely on their side. The girls just have to be willing to participate.”

‘Fast Cash’

Alexa Rohlsen, who sued Baby Dolls, took up dancing at 18 in clubs in Tampa and Clearwater to pay for her tuition at cosmetology school. Now 24 and a mother of two, she’s a licensed cosmetologist and working as a medical tech and home health aide. She last danced in 2015. “Dancing is fast cash. I was freshly out of high school,” she says. “I can’t really say I hated dancing. I was young.” It fit her school schedule. At some clubs, dancers are employees. At others, they not only work just for tips but also have to pay for a dance slot, pay the manager and tip the D.J. and security people.

Rohlsen wouldn’t discuss the arrangement at Baby Dolls or the confidential settlement of her suit. She did say “there are some clubs better than others. In that kind of atmosphere, there’s nights. It’s basically like you’re in a casino. You may hit on some money. You might not.” She adds she never would say dancing is over for her. “I liked the club environment. I’m a music-type of person. I see dancing as art,” Rohlsen says.

Pixelated Tittilation

Don Kleinhans, owner of 2001 Odyssey, a strip club on Dale Mabry in Tampa, took a financial beating as an early adopter of live subscription digital streaming of his main stage in the late 1990s. The telecom bills were huge, and most people’s DSL and dial-up modems couldn’t deliver. “Disastrous,” Kleinhans says.

It cooled his ardor for the digital age, but only until about seven years ago. Now his main stage is live streamed — about $24 a month for a subscription — and his dancers get an audience in day shifts when the club sometimes is quiet and, via a monitor that faces them, can see how many people are online, who wants to be blown a kiss and whether the tips are flowing.

Kleinhans’ online customers can even hit a club video-on-demand service to view a virtual reality private dance, provided they have headsets at home. (Otherwise, it’s regular display.) This year, he added a 360-degree camera and a live, virtual reality stream of the dancers’ dressing room.

 

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