Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Tempers race over strip club

Biggest noise isn't coming from racetrack

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sparta council member Ann Farrar, 22, sits in front of the Sparta Department Store, where she works.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        SPARTA, Ky. — Every day on his way to work, Warsaw, Ky., resident Dennis Cornelison drives past what he calls a pimple on the face of the countryside.

        Work for the Rev. Mr. Cornelison is the Sparta Baptist Church, where he serves as pastor. The blemish, he says, is Racers Pit Stop Bar and Grille, a combination restaurant and strip club set to open this week on a flat ridge just across Interstate 71 from the nearly finished $150 million Kentucky Speedway.

        “How would you like to drive past something like that every day?” the Rev. Mr. Cornelison asked about the club, not the speedway.

        “It's a big pimple on the face of the countryside, a nuclear waste dump. People in this community don't want an adult club.”

        For the past couple of years, residents here have wondered whether they should want the racetrack Jerry Carroll is building off Ky. 35.

        They wonder how it will affect life in this rural stretch. People know that crowds, attention and new businesses will become a part of life, and many seem prepared and willing to accept those changes.

        But they hadn't anticipated what came next, an adult club featuring topless dancers and the planned 20-room hotel being built next door to it.

        “I live less than 2 miles from the racetrack, and I don't have a problem with (the track),” said Bonnie Humphries, 31, a third-grade teacher.

        “But I do have a problem with a perversion like a strippers' club. What do I tell my students and my own children about what will go on up there? Nobody wants it that I've talked to.

        “It's immoral.”

        With a population of just 133, Sparta is one of the tiniest cities in one of Ken tucky's smallest counties.

        About an hour southwest of Cincinnati, Sparta's downtown is a couple of blocks with two stores, a gas station, an antiques dealer, and a few other buildings. Nearby are some railroad tracks and the rolling farmland and hilltop views typical of rural Galla tin County.

        Until the speedway got special dispensation from the Kentucky General Assembly last year, it was illegal to sell hard liquor by the glass in Gallatin County.

        Except for the speedway, no one in Sparta can sell anything with alcohol in it on Sundays.

        Tom Handorf, who has operated Mr T's liquor store in nearby Warsaw for 25 years, hopes the new businesses don't change that.

        “No one knows for sure exactly what to expect when the track opens,” he said. “I hope we don't change too much. I like Warsaw and Gallatin County just the way it is.”

Manager Walter Brown inside the new club
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        Some residents say they fear the club will attract crime, drugs and prostitution to Sparta, a town with just four police officers.

        They shouldn't worry, said Sparta Police Chief William Ping, whose office is practically next to the club.

        “We're right next door, and we're going to be watching it,” Chief Ping said last week.

        “If it is not operating as a reputable business, we'll shut it down. But I'm not that worried. I know the people involved, and they are good people who aren't going to do anything that breaks the law or makes trouble.”

        Bob Wallace, a Grant County businessman, owns the club and the adjacent hotel. He also owns Grant County Drugs in Dry Ridge, Ky.

        Mr. Wallace said he expects to draw bar patrons from the racetrack, the community, the Tristate region and from truckers traveling on I-71.

        “It's going to be reputable,” he said.

        The I—71 corridor between Cincinnati and Louisville is a busy trucking route. There are truck stops, restaurants and motels at other highway exits in Gallatin County, but none at Sparta.

        Though the 20-room hotel will be next to the strip club, none of the dancers will be allowed to stay there, said Walter Brown, who will manage the strip club.

        “We'll have one room allocated for a traveling entertainer, but it will be our policy that the other entertainers will not be allowed in the hotel building,” Mr. Brown said.

        Racers looks to be about the size of a family restaurant. The front half will be a restaurant and sports bar that will serve burgers, sandwiches and steaks. All ages will be welcome there.

        But through a separate entrance in the rear is the club where topless dancers will perform. A stage is surrounded by tables, and black couches line the walls in the rear of the room.

        Admission will be $5. Beer and wine will be served.

        “This will not be seedy in any way,” Mr. Brown said. “This will be a reputable place where problems won't be tolerated.

        “This will be an establishment that the community will be proud to have in its back yard.”

        Mr. Wallace said some in the community already are sold on the idea.

        “The city of Sparta is welcoming me,” he said. “They know I have a good reputation as a businessman, and they gave me the go-ahead last year to open the club.”

        That's not true, said council member Ann Farrar.

        When word about a possible strip club began circulating last April, the council tried to enact a zoning ordinance, modeled after a law passed in Lexington, that would have regulated — and possibly prevent — the club from operating.

        But after the first reading of the ordinance, city officials learned that the Lexington code had been declared unconstitutional by a Kentucky court. Fearing a costly legal fight, the city backed off.

        “We're a small city,” said Spar ta Clerk/Treasurer Jayne Smith. “It nearly bankrupted us just to publish the first reading of the ordinance in the local paper. That cost almost $700, and we only had $1,000 in the bank at the time. So there was no way we could fight somebody in court.”

        Some residents say the city did not do more to fight the club because one of its original owners — Warsaw lawyer Larry Lawrence — has links to city officials in Sparta. He and his firm have worked for the city.

        Mr. Lawrence, who has said he is selling his stake back to Mr. Wallace, did not return phone calls for comment.

        The city also should have alerted people sooner that the club was coming, Mrs. Humphries said.

        “The city should have done more to let people know what was going on. I think that's the duty of people who are elected to office.”

        But, Ms. Farrar said, the meetings when council discussed the adult entertainment ordinance were open to the public and the ordinance was published in the paper.

        “Nothing was hidden; this was out in the open,” she said.

        The strip club has further strained already tense relations between the city and Mr. Carroll, who has spoken out against Racers and last week filed a lawsuit to have the racetrack de-annexed from the city.

        “Jerry Carroll should worry about running his racetrack,” Chief Ping said. “We'll worry about what happens in our town.”

        But a movement within the town has begun to protest the strip club and keep other similar businesses from opening.

        The Rev. Mr. Cornelison and other religious leaders met last week with representatives of Citizens for Community Values (CCV), a Sharonville-based anti-pornography organization that has fought against nude dancing clubs in Greater Cincinnati. CCV is try ing to pressure police departments in Butler County, Ohio, to crack down on stores selling sexually explicit material in hopes of keeping Larry Flynt from opening a Hustler store in Monroe.

        The religious leaders said their churches may organize protests at the club; they also are considering boycotting Grant County Drugs because Mr. Wallace owns it.

        “People aren't just opposed to the club on moral grounds, but they are worried about it affecting the quality of life here,” the Rev. Mr. Cornelison said. “And they are getting ready to try and do something about it.”

        Gallatin County Attorney Steve Huddleston is drafting a countywide law to restrict adult entertainment. Though he is still researching the ordinance, he said it will be at least partially patterned after a law in Newport that has withstood court challenges.

        Newport created a zone for such businesses in 1977 and, in 1982, it adopted an ordinance prohibiting nude dancing in businesses with liquor licenses.

        The speedway and strip club, when they open, will be the largest employers in town.

        Gallatin County resident Dennis Smith, 43, is working on the club's construction. He said people “are blowing this whole thing way out of whack.”

        “Look, you don't like it, don't go,” he said.

        “I plan to check it out. I'm an adult. But nobody has to walk in there who doesn't agree with it.

        “That's their right; just like it's the right of the owners to put that club there.”

        But Eva Cozine, 33, an employee of the Sparta Department Store, said she wishes the club wouldn't have come to Sparta.

        “I'm afraid it will cause problems. It's just something that doesn't belong here.”


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