RICHLAND COUNTY, SC — When police burst through the doors of Crush Nightlife last month, area residents were exasperated that a club could operate with so many problems for so long without any government agency intervening sooner.
Rebecca Haynes, president of the Earlewood Community Citizens Organization, said she was baffled when she learned the club did not have a county-issued permit to operate a sexually oriented business or the necessary state-issued permits to sell liquor, wine and beer.
On top of those problems, the shootings and other violence associated with the club have been a concern for the neighborhood for some time. Deputies raided the business twice last month after two shootings within a week.
“I’m really frustrated by this thing where they have to shut them down with a criminal case,” Haynes said. “It’s kind of kooky. I don’t get it at all.”
The situation with Crush was allowed to fester for a number of reasons. It’s a situation two decades in the making as Richland County government has struggled with how to regulate sexually oriented businesses.
Special codes are supposed to control where the businesses can open, but those have been ignored by strip clubs for years with no consequences. And if you ask officials how many sexually oriented business are in the county, the answer is a telling, “I really can’t say for certain.”
The U.S. Constitution protects people’s right to dance naked or to pay someone else do it. But few homeowners want a strip club – and the problems they often bring – in their neighborhoods. It’s an issue shared by cities and counties across the United States.
Richland County has suffered from a lack of political will to get involved because the choice often boils down to satisfying constituents or being sued.
As a result, Richland County Council has done everything it can to avoid getting involved. If the county enforces the law, it almost certainly will force clubs into new locations in different neighborhoods – and that won’t make anyone happy.
“Everytime somebody threatens a lawsuit, you start to hear, ‘Lawsuit – it’s going to be long. It’s going to cost a lot of money,’ ” said Councilman Bill Malinowski.
That fear of a lawsuit became reality several years ago when the owner of two other strip clubs sued the county over its zoning codes. Officials have been hesitant to do anything about Crush or other strip clubs until that suit was settled, said Stephany Snowden, the county’s public information officer.
That suit was settled last month. Staff members will present County Council with enforcement options during its Tuesday meeting, she said. That discussion will be held in executive session, meaning anything that is said will be secret.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Leon Lott said his department only gets involved when violence breaks out, which it did on consecutive weekends in January after shots were fired at Crush, which sometimes calls itself “Crush Gentlemen’s Club.”
While Lott has cracked down on Crush with two raids in the past three weeks, he has not busted other clubs known to be skirting the same rules.
Lott said he does not have time to enforce all of the county’s codes because violent crimes such as murders and burglaries get priority. But when criminal activity repeatedly occurs, he must get involved.
“What’s got our attention is the shootings, the violence and the other types of crime,” he said.
A confusing bureaucracy
One thing that makes enforcement hard is the sleight of hand used by businessmen as the clubs change ownership and names. That makes it difficult to track licenses among multiple city, county and state agencies. A liquor license doesn’t have to be in the owner’s name, for example.
And, in many cases, club owners don’t check a box on their county business license application that discloses they are opening a sexually oriented business.
The address for 3722 River Driver has been a strip club as long as most people can remember. Jerry Britt bought the property in 1999.
Since then, it has operated under several names and owners. In recent memory, it has been Chastity’s Gold Club, Savannah’s and Crush Nightlife.
Crush’s owner is Stan Hudgens, the sheriff’s department said. Efforts to reach his attorney for this story were unsuccessful.
Crush obtained a county business license in July 2012 under the ownership name of Blue Willow Group, doing business as Crush Nightlife, said Pam Davis, director of the county’s business service center.
Prior to July 2012, the business license was under the Savannah’s name, Davis said. She did not provide information on when the Savannah’s license was issued.
But the Crush Nightlife sign has been in front of the club for longer than seven months, according to neighbors, the sheriff’s department and county officials. According to documents at the S.C. Secretary of State’s office, Blue Willow Group incorporated at 3722 River Drive on Feb. 24, 2011.
At the S.C. Department of Revenue, which issues alcohol licenses, the most recent name on the liquor license was S and B of Cola Inc , doing business as Chastity’s Gold Club, said Samantha Cheek, a department spokeswoman. That license was issued in March 1997 and turned in July 21, 2012.
In August, the Revenue Department issued a special event beer and wine permit to Blue Willow Group. That license was valid Aug. 3-17. No liquor or beer and wine permits have been issued for that address since then, Cheek said.
When asked why the Revenue Department did not try to stop the club from selling alcohol without a license, Cheek said enforcement of state liquor laws was the responsibility of the State Law Enforcement Division.
After suffering from state cutbacks, SLED made it clear that alcohol enforcement was not a priority. But in the past year, the agency’s alcohol enforcement unit has been rebuilding.
Check ‘yes’ or ‘no’
Another trick strip club owners use to mask their true intentions is to mislead officials when filling out license applications.
“They get a license for operating a sports bar and when they open, they put up a pole and it’s a strip club,” Lott said. “The county doesn’t have the means to chase them down, and that puts it on us.”
The person who filled out the business license application for Blue Willow Group checked “no” in response to the question of whether the business would at any time qualify as a sexually oriented business.
It appears that no one from the county followed up on the Crush application even though that location had been a strip club for years and the new management continued to operate the same type of business as the previous one.
The county’s business service center has seven employees who are responsible for licensing thousands of businesses every year, Davis said.
“There’s 10,000 businesses, and it’s impossible to correspond with them throughout the year,” she said.
If the business license office does not know of any problems with a business owner, there is no reason to deny the application, Davis said.
“With Crush, we didn’t realize there was a problem with Blue Willow Group,” she said.
The business service center also does not have a comprehensive list of sexually oriented businesses in the county. When asked how many there are, Davis answered, “I really can’t say for certain.”
Finally, Crush operates in an area that is not zoned for a sexually oriented business. But it is not the only strip club that is operating under a zoning violation.
Platinum Plus at 362 Jacob Road and Heartbreakers at 800 Bush River Road also are not in legal locations. But the county recently reached a settlement with the owner of those clubs that will allow him to keep Platinum Plus open in exchange for closing Heartbreakers, which is in a more visible location.
That deal most likely has set a precedent for other clubs that also would want to operate in illegal locations.
Communities in a bind
Club owners take advantage of the lack of clarity in the laws and the lax enforcement by government agencies.
The county’s sexually oriented business ordinance needs more teeth, Lott said. There are no fines associated with violations.
When asked what could stop a strip club owner from opening a club anywhere in the county, Lott said, “Nothing.”
That leaves residents who are concerned about the clubs’ impact on their communities in a bind.
In the Earlewood neighborhood, the community organization looks out for issues such as zoning, beautification and crime. Crush is not in the neighborhood but is about a half mile away on River Drive.
“Everything around us impacts us and we cannot be insulated,” Haynes said. “It’s not about the fact that it’s a strip club. It’s about the fact that it’s a violent place. They are operating illegally.”
Haynes said she has too many questions about the county’s sexually oriented business code to “beat up” on those officials. And she’s pleased that the sheriff and the solicitor have started taking action.
The neighborhood’s residents have taken it upon themselves to ask questions and find answers, she said. They have held community meetings and private meetings with the sheriff’s department and solicitor’s office. Some residents have signed affidavits that will become part of the solicitor’s case to have a judge order the club’s doors shut.
Those affidavits will become part of 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson’s case. He will try to convince a judge that Crush is a public nuisance. That designation would allow the county to revoke the club’s business license, effectively shutting the doors. But that takes time.
Meanwhile, Haynes and her neighbors wish the nuisance process had started much sooner.
“I don’t know why they weren’t more proactive,” she said. “We are a volunteer neighborhood group. Why did we have to do all of the investigating?”
Reporter Dawn Hinshaw contributed. Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.