Once Ground Zero for nude dancers and their fans, a cluster of Southeast strip clubs has disappeared into thin air — or, perhaps more accurately, into the dust of the quickly emerging Washington Nationals baseball stadium.
After being kicked out to make way for the stadium and accompanying development, the clubs can find no other neighborhood that will take them. Add to that the problem of restrictive laws, an unshakable seedy image and a drawn-out dispute over zoning laws, and the clubs now find themselves stuck in purgatory.
“I’m almost at the point now where I don’t think there are any options. I’m looking for all the help I can get,” said Ronald Dickson, a 66-year-old who owned Club 55 with his wife, Deloris. Since the “gentleman’s club” closed in September, he and his wife have been “unemployed and broke,” he said. “Our ages are at the point where we’re stuck. … I’m thinking about looking for a job. I gotta find something.”
Since the last of the clubs closed this fall, several have tried to move without success. Ward 5 is the most popular would-be destination: It includes an industrial district that satisfies the city’s requirements for strip clubs, such as staying at least 600 feet away from residences. But even these areas are proving unreachable because the clubs are approved for a zone in Ward 6 that disappeared when the ballpark moved in. And the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is split 3-3 on whether a city statute allows the businesses to move into a similar zone in Ward 5.
“We are being bounced from one District office to the next. However, there hasn’t been a task force,” said Andrea Bagwell, a lawyer who represents the Dicksons. City officials actively recruit big-name businesses for new developments, she said, “but they don’t want to give any deference to what I want to call the pioneers.”
Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham has tried. Last year, he introduced a bill that would allow establishments within 200 yards of the stadium a one-time opportunity to move their liquor license into another zone. Then the ABC Board issued an advisory opinion that predicted the clubs would be able to move without the legislation, and Graham, thinking the problem was solved, pulled the bill.
Now that hope has vanished. The clubs can find places to move only in Ward 5, and those places are in a different zone subsection. With the ABC Board deadlocked on whether a move would be legal, legislation to circumvent or clarify the statute seems to be the only option.
Although Graham has reintroduced his bill, he said he isn’t sure anything can be done.
“Quite frankly, I don’t know whether we have the votes or not,” he said, adding that the city has a responsibility to help out the businesses it displaced. “We have in effect put all of these businesses out of business. … Unless we can remedy this zoning question, they are history. There is no doubt about it.”
Ronald Hunt, who owned the gay strip clubs Edge and Wet and the more high-end Nexus Gold Club, wants to move to 2046 West Virginia Ave. NE, a location that overlooks a large cemetery. After submitting the application to move his liquor license, getting past protests from some community groups and coming within inches of being accepted, the ABC Board decision put his situation in indefinite stasis.
“We moved all the debris out of the road until the board blew up the road,” said Hunt’s lawyer, Michael Fonseca. Now, Fonseca will ask for the application to be reconsidered once the board fills a vacancy by naming its seventh member, hoping that the extra vote will go his way. If it does, Hunt will be clear to move and open shop; if it doesn’t, he’ll have to start from scratch.
At the ABC Board meeting in February, Hunt vented his frustration with the holdup, asserting that he is a law-abiding business owner.
“Why don’t you want me? I did everything right,” he said, according to a transcript of the meeting. “A graveyard. Who am I disturbing? A graveyard.”
William Shelton, chairman of the Ward 5B Advisory Neighborhood Commission, said residents are worried that the city will dump all of the relocated strip clubs into their area. Although the city has a responsibility to help the clubs move, he said, that move shouldn’t be exclusively into Ward 5.
“Our biggest issue is that this community has fought long and hard to try to remove the negative impact that clubs have when they come to the ward,” he said, listing the numerous clubs that dot the area, including Market Lounge. “We’ve got a lot of clubs. We really feel that some other parts of the city really ought to take their share of the club impact,” even if doing that means tweaking the zoning code.
In the meantime, Ward 5 seems to be the only place clubs are looking. The Dicksons tried to move into the area, but the property owners refused to let them lease at the last second. Now, they’re looking everywhere, although Ronald Dickson admitted that there are few places in the city that satisfy city requirements for nude clubs. He said he misses running Club 55, which was open for at least 15 years.
“We had the most dynamic atmosphere. We had people there who would come there just to see our decorations,” he said. “People used to come from all over just to see what we’ve done. … We had lawyers, doctors, blue-collar workers. We had all-around people.”
But no matter how many times nude club owners claim they are law-abiding and tax-paying citizens, neighborhoods just don’t want them. Hunt ducked public protest because the 5B ANC filed its protest late, but clubs following in his footsteps might not be so lucky. Even if the D.C. City Council or the ABC Board eventually smoothes the way for relocation, community outrage can kill an application for a liquor license.
But Bagwell said her clients, which include Club 55 and Clancy’s, just want the opportunity to get to the step of speaking with the community.
“I don’t think that most people are aware that these are regulated businesses, and they assume that they are untoward,” she said. “This is not about putting bad businesses in the community.”