Satan continues to lurk in the corridors of City Hall, this time as a link connecting Birmingham to the global sex trade. At the April 19 City Council meeting, morality crusaders expressed dismay that the city would consider opening a topless bar in an industrial and historic district directly across from Sloss Furnaces.
Known as The Furnace, the club is an imposing structure that has been advertising and selling memberships before receiving the necessary permits to open. The Furnace has been in the planning stages since 1999, when the previous City Council denied a Division II dance permit. The club sued over that decision in January 2000 and an agreement was reached to resolve the lawsuit. However, a battle with the state Alcohol Beverage Control Board has delayed the opening. In November 2004, Councilor Carole Smitherman spoke in favor of The Furnace and its tax benefit to the city. (The Council approved the club’s liquor license in May 2004.) But by April, Smitherman had changed her mind and voted with the majority to deny the club a dance permit by a six to three vote. Councilors Roderick Royal, Bert Miller, and Elias Hendricks voted in favor of the club.
The rhetoric of moral and economic zealots was as fascinating as the car wash drama in the council chambers two weeks previous when a license for that business was denied. “I am a recovering sexual addict myself!” admitted Paul Hughes, a ministry veteran of 23 years who works for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, a campus ministry with an office a few blocks north of The Furnace. Hughes said that he has observed “my peers dealing with issues of sexual addiction and the ‘tsunami’ of social cost that the multi-billion-dollar pornography industry celebrates and profits from in terms of what it’s costing our men, our women, in relationships, in marriages, [and] the destruction of these marriages.” Hughes continued: “I’m made of the same cloth as those who will be satisfied in their desires by these men who are for this. I’m saying that there is a global sex industry that you do not want to say ‘yes’ to in the heart of Birmingham, right between the national historic site of Sloss Furnace [sic] and the Hope VI project!” Hughes finished with a flourish: “They want to be the flagship and put a very pretty face on a very destructive force in our city, with their billboards along every major highway . . . if we continue to say ‘yes’ to sex trade that is global, it won’t only affect young men in Birmingham but also young women in Romania and Eastern Europe, who right now are being imported through Mexico City, pimped and prostituted and then imported into Atlanta, New Orleans, to be a part of the auxiliary illegal sex trade.”
Steve Upton, owner of Crane Works at 2728 8th Avenue North, represented the economic interest that seemed to more effectively instill fear in the hearts of city officials; he threatened to pull his business out of Birmingham. Speaking on behalf of a real estate company that he owns as well as Crane Works, Upton said, “As far as statistics go, Crane Works today is already spending $250,000 in property taxes, payroll taxes, sales tax license, and business license,” said Upton. “And that’s in a business that’s only been growing for six years. If things turn for the worse, we could pack our bags and leave the city.” Ironically, the mammoth Crane Works building was erected directly across the street from an adult book store.
Mark Polson, who identified himself as a defense attorney who has practiced law for 30 years and has represented women employed at other strip clubs in town, said that what the exotic dancers share in common are prostitution and drug addiction. “What do you think goes on in those private rooms?” Polson asked the Council, noting that prostitution is how these women pay for their addictions.
Several women addressed the Council next, quoting scripture. One said she had solicited opinions from surrounding businesses refuting information she had received that the majority in the area were in favor of the club. “My friend and I just didn’t believe that,” she said. “We spent three days going around the industrial park. We talked to at least 20 businesses—huge businesses. Most said, ‘We wish it would fall into the ground.’ And I’m going to say ‘an ugly,’ that it is a whorehouse and a drug place. And we don’t like looking at the naked ladies that are painted on the corners of the building.” She added, “It’s an industrial area and should not be a red-light district.”
“First and foremost, this is not against the law,” argued Councilor Elias Hendricks. “It was not against the law when the people initially invested their money, and it’s not against the law now . . . If you have a problem with this, then make it against the law before people [invest] their money.” Hendricks, who lives in the area, has indicated that the neighborhood approves of the establishment. “We are getting ready to have people invest $180 million in an entertainment complex,” Hendricks said. “We cannot, if it’s within the confines of the law, start picking and choosing. If you don’t like Thai food, don’t go to a Thai restaurant. But that doesn’t mean that the Thai restaurant should not exist, if it’s well within the law.” Councilor Roderick Royal added, “We are treading on a slippery slope here because we’ve not so inquired about other applicants as much as we’ve done here, in previous forums.” City Attorney Tamara Johnson disputed Royal’s claim.
The ABC Board earlier denied the club a liquor license due to concerns about private dance rooms as well as problems with the names on the application. Circuit Court Judge Scott Vowell ordered the state agency to rehear the club’s application. The ABC board had maintained that the owner, Gregory Jackson, failed to include the names of others with a financial interest in the establishment. Jackson’s brother, who reportedly had a drug conviction in 2002, was not listed as one of the owners of the business, although he was reportedly involved in the business. Vowell told Jackson to identify everyone with a financial stake in the business. Furnace attorney Ferris Ritchey maintained that the correct names were disclosed and that no one was trying to hide anything. In early March the ABC Board recommended that the owner be granted a liquor license.
“The fact [is] that the transfer of property was made specifically in order to take someone else’s name off of this application after it had already initially been filed,” complained Councilor Joel Montgomery. The councilor said dance floors are to be a minimum of 15 square feet and permanent in nature, but that he had not been able to confirm that the dance floors are in compliance with city code. “I am not going to ignore the business owners around this establishment,” Montgomery added. “I am not going to ignore their wishes . . . They were here before you got here. I do not appreciate the way that this establishment came into the city of Birmingham, posting billboards up all over the interstates, all over the bypasses, saying that you were going to build it before you had even applied for a liquor license or a Division II dance permit.”
Mayor Bernard Kincaid urged the Council to vote against the dance permit, though he acknowledged that the business could operate without exotic dancing, although it might not be as profitable for the city tax-wise. “There is no absolute right to this license,” said Kincaid. “It might not be as profitable, but it would fit with the terrain that the Council and the Mayor are responsible for protecting.”
Attorney Ferris Ritchey, who has requested nearly a dozen delays from the Council as The Furnace battled with the state ABC Board for a liquor permit, pointed out that there are currently five similar strip club businesses in the city. “[The] only thing is that The Furnace will be much nicer, much more secure,” Ritchey said. He added that cameras will monitor club activity. The attorney said The Furnace would provide between $150,000 and $200,000 in taxes for the city and would employ up to 100 people. The attorney said he would appeal the Council’s rejection to the Jefferson County Circuit Court.
On Friday, April 29, Judge Houston Brown ruled that the city should abide by the 2000 agreement with the club and grant The Furnace a dance permit. As of press time, the city had not decided if it would appeal. &