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W.Va. Senate bans new strip bars

February 21, 2000|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - After four years of battling for legislation to curb strip bars, West Virginia Sen. Herb Snyder on Monday saw the Senate pass a bill that would allow existing clubs to remain in business but would prohibit the opening of new ones.

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Snyder, D-Jefferson, said the legislation is needed because of "very vocal" opposition to nude, or "exotic," dance clubs in West Virginia.

By passing the Senate by a vote of 32-2, the bill has gotten further than most of its predecessors. It now goes to the House of Delegates, where Snyder said it has support.

Gov. Cecil Underwood has indicated he supports the bill, Snyder said.

Earlier attempts to limit the number of such clubs have failed because of fears such legislation would conflict with the constitutional right to freedom of expression, Snyder said.

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Snyder said lawmakers, responding to church groups across the state that want a ban on nude dance clubs, have been trying to find a way to control the number of exotic dance clubs.

If Snyder's bill passes the Legislature, existing exotic dance clubs would be allowed to remain in business, but no additional bars would be allowed to open, he said.

The lone exception would be if the owner of an existing club sold the club and transferred the license to a new owner.

The bill would also require state ABC Commissioner Don Stemple to write stricter regulations controlling exotic dance clubs, Snyder said.

In addition to placing a moratorium on new strip clubs, the bill would place regulations on clubs that have nude dancing but don't serve alcohol.

Such clubs allow patrons to bring in their own liquor, then sell them cola or juice as mixers. Since they don't sell alcohol, those clubs don't have to comply with exotic dancing laws that are required of clubs controlled by the state Alcohol Beverage Control Commission, Snyder said. He said he doesn't know of any such clubs in the Eastern Panhandle.

ABC-controlled nude clubs cannot allow physical contact between dancers and patrons, among other rules, club owners said.

Strip clubs that don't sell alcohol "are under the radar screen so they can pretty much do whatever they want," Snyder said.

Some exotic dance club owners contacted Monday said they believe the bill goes too far.

Troy Erickson, who owns two exotic dance clubs in Berkeley County, said ABC inspectors regularly visit his clubs to make sure they are abiding by the regulations.

If lawmakers are worried that children riding in a car with their parents will see a sign advertising exotic dancers along the road, they should be concerned about more serious problems, said Erickson.

Children can go home and see much more explicit material on cable TV, Erickson said.

"I think they are barking up the wrong tree," said Erickson, owner of the Legz II dance club along Charles Town Road near Martinsburg and Legz Platinum on U.S. 11 in Bunker Hill.

"If they would have come and studied our clubs and saw what we do, I think they would have found there is a very good system in place," Erickson said.

There are about eight exotic dance clubs in Jefferson and Berkeley counties, Erikson said.

Ken Atherholt, owner of the Peek-A-Boo club on North Queen Street in Martinsburg, thinks the bill will face trouble. Atherholt predicts other bills will be offered and lawmakers won't be able to agree on a compromise.

"I wish them a lot of luck," Atherholt said. "My personal opinion is I don't think they are going to be able to stop it."

"I think they are just trying to get re-elected," Erickson said.

Although Eastern Panhandle church organizations did not launch an organized fight against exotic dance bars, the Rev. James Schuelke of Inwood, W.Va., said he is concerned about the clubs.

Schuelke, minister at the Inwood Assembly of God along W.Va. 51, has been concerned about the proliferation of bars in the area, especially along U.S. 11.

He said his concerns are also directed at the dance clubs.

"Enough is enough," Schuelke said.

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