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Vote Leaves Few Options for SE Clubs

Strip club owners suffered another strike against their livelihood Thursday when D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board voted 4-2 to reject one owner’s application to set up shop in a Ward 5 neighborhood.

The decision means the strip clubs that once thrived in what is now the Southeast ballpark district will be hard-pressed to find a place to move in Washington, D.C. Many club owners have been out of work for months, after they were forced to close their businesses to make room for the new Washington Nationals baseball stadium.

ABC Board members rejected the application because of a zoning law that only allows a liquor license to be moved within the “same” district. Club owners argued that the law meant they could move between different subsections of zones, while board members ultimately concluded that the law was narrower than that.

Attorney Michael Fonseca, who brought the application before the ABC Board on behalf of Edge/Wet club owner Ronald Hunt, said the decision seriously undermines their cause.

“It significantly reduces the areas and the number of locations one could move,” he said. “It’s difficult enough now with the restrictions on being too near to residents such that the few places you can find are few and far between.”

But even as the board denied the application, members stressed that they were sympathetic to the plight of nightclubs displaced by the stadium, according to an ABC Board press release. They also urged the D.C. City Council to take action.

The clubs once entertained gay and straight patrons. The Edge and Wet mixed nightclub with gay stripping, while the Nexus Gold served as a more high-end “gentleman’s club.” Nearby was Club 55, owned by 66-year-old Ronald Dickson and his wife, Deloris. It not only showcased erotic dance but also hosted burlesque shows for causes such as breast cancer research, Deloris Dickson said.

“People don’t know you and they ridicule and protest against you for something they don’t know anything about,” she said, adding that her club strictly followed the rules and usually catered to an older crowd.

In February, the ABC Board was stuck 3-3 on whether to allow Ronald Hunt to open a club in a building at 2046 West Virginia Ave. NE, which overlooks a large cemetery. When Mital Gandhi filled a vacant seventh seat, the board considered the application again, and Gandhi voted against it, said Fred Moosally, general counsel to the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. One board member who previously voted to accept the application was absent.

By shooting down the application and effectively barring any other clubs from moving out of a narrow zone, Ronald Dickson said the city is just fueling possible lawsuits.

“I think they’re in for a big, big fight,” he said.

Fonseca said he now will file an appeal and will also push for a legislative fix to the zoning law. Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham already has introduced legislation to allow establishments within 200 yards of the stadium a one-time opportunity to move their liquor license into another zone. But he has said that he is unsure whether the bill will be able to pass; although he considers it the city’s responsibility to find a place for the clubs they kicked out, supporting strip clubs is not a widely popular move.

But Deloris Dickson said she is hopeful that she and her husband will be able to find a location in the same zone that is on their liquor license. About 15 of her former employees have been out of a job since the club closed in September, she said, and she is eager to get them back to work.

“I worry about them everyday,” she said.

If nothing is done, Fonseca said some club owners might take on the tight restrictions in court and argue that they step on strip club owners’ constitutional rights. But his goal is to simply give owners the ability to open up their clubs somewhere in the city, he said.

“We’re trying to take the bumps in the road out of the road, so to speak,” he said. “We’re trying to fill the potholes up.”

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