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Small towns react
By Jeff Horwich
Minnesota Public Radio
March 4, 2002
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Something that happened in the little town of Cosmos this winter frightened people in other small towns for miles around. Residents of the Meeker County town of 600 woke up one morning in November to find a strip club on one corner of their main intersection. No one saw it coming, and like many small towns, Cosmos had no laws on the books to regulate an adult business. One neighboring city, Litchfield, has been inspired to take a creative approach to regulating strip clubs.

The proprietors of the Juice Bar surprised local officials in tiny Cosmos, Minn., last fall by opening their strip club on Main Street.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Cosmos Mayor Gary Martin is filling propane tanks on a frigid day at his Cenex Co-Op. He's a brusque man who is clearly not enthusiastic about the reporter who's shown up in his shop. It all seems like "more free advertising" for the strip club that moved in right next door. And that's not all there is to his little town.

"We've got a good school district, good education. We've got good churches to go to. If you want to come here to live, it's quiet - get out of the big town rush," says Martin.

A strip club called the Juice Bar showed up in a vacant restaurant, at the corner where State Highways 4 and 7 meet on Main Street, Cosmos. Big red painted lips greet visitors from the west, north, and east. The mayor's attitude about the new business is like most folks - something akin to a big sigh and a shrug of the shoulders.

"We had a few concerned citizens and we talked to them and tried to explain to them," says Martin. "I think they understand now it's just a thing that happened, and we're going to have to live with it until hopefully it goes away."

Martin ponders the question of whether Cosmos was taken advantage of because it's a small town.

"People...see an advantage to get into small towns because they don't have no ordinance," Martin says. "The way they do it, it was easy to get it in and open up and you're there. And nobody really knew nothing about what it was about."

"There's very little that can be done, besides trying to avoid a potential lawsuit," says city clerk Kathy Blackwell.

She says she knew someone bought the property, and she'd heard talk it would open as a supper club. The owner had applied to the city for a liquor license, and was denied. That was the all she knew. It was all the owner had to tell her, under the laws in Cosmos at the time.

Downtown Litchfield, Minn. would have to be the location of any strip club or other adult business seeking to locate in the town. City officials hope the requirement discourages such businesses, by shaming residents who might otherwise patronize them.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

"I think he opened on a Friday or a Saturday. I wasn't aware what was going on until Monday morning. It wasn't something we discussed in church on Sunday. Nobody let me know," says Blackwell.

The Cosmos City Council moved quickly to get a new zoning law on the books. Highway 7 links the Dakotas with the Twin Cities. Highway 4 carries traffic headed north to lake country. City officials figured at least they could keep their crossroads from burgeoning into some sort of red light district.

But the only contact the city has with the Juice Bar is when it pays its utility bills. Which it does - on time.

The club's management didn't reply to a request for an interview. But you don't have to walk more than a block down the street to find people who are glad to have it here.

Gene and Bonita Hackbarth own one of two bars in town. Business is up more than 50 percent since the Juice Bar moved in down the street. They say Cosmos was a one-horse town with nothing to lose. Far from banning new adult clubs, the town should welcome them.

"I'd say they're missing the boat," says Gene Hackbarth. "It's there. Skin is sellable, and it will sell and it will bring business to bars."

"As long as you don't have drugs going on, and people are being responsible and you don't have minor children walking in the door, what's it hurting? It's not hurting anything," says Bonita Hackbarth.

After the rest of Cosmos goes to sleep, she says the club lights up and pulls in dollars from out of town.

"Skin is sellable - it will sell, and it will bring business to bars."

- Bar owner Gene Hackbarth in Cosmos, Minn.

"More people means it creates business and money which goes through the community - all the way around. It helps everyone," says Bonita Hackbarth.

The clerk in the town's gas station and convenience store also says business is up noticably since the Juice Bar opened across the street.

Other local governments in the area are not so taken with this idea of adult entertainment as an economic engine. Many see Cosmos as a cautionary tale.

Officials in Atwater and Willmar, and with Kandiyohi County, hope temporary moratoriums on adult businesses will buy some time to toughen their permanent zoning laws.

About 25 miles away in Litchfield, there are no adult clubs or sex shops. But the city council moved quickly and unanimously to adopt a law similar to the one drafted for Cosmos.

It's almost the same law - with one important difference. Towns are required by the First Amendment to make at least some land available for adult businesses. The usual solution is relegate them to industrial parks. In Litchfield, this seemed like giving up.

City Administrator Bruce Miller says the city is taking "a calculated risk" by requiring any adult clubs or shops to locate amid the cafes and barber shops of Main Street.

"We're...thinking that if someone goes to these types of places - and they have every right to go there - they'd at least like the anonymity to be able to park in a dimly-lit place and kind of sneak in the door," says Miller. "In Litchfield we said 'No, if you're going to patronize this you'll walk down the main street of Litchfield in view of everybody that happens to be there.'"

Nicole Johnson owns a coffee shop in Litchfield, Minn. She supports a recent move by the city council to discourage strip clubs from opening, by requiring them to locate on Main Street.
(MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)

Miller doesn't like to call it a deterrent because any law that actually ends up banning strip clubs is not legal. But he admits the "downtown" concept may indeed make Litchfield less favorable to adult businesses.

The city attorney who drafted the law is slightly more cautious. Mark Wood says they're not out to shame any businesses out of Litchfield.

"That certainly wasn't the intent of the draft. I think it was to say that you're a viable business, that you should be downtown where if the community wants to accept you, they can. If they want to reject you, they can," says Wood.

The Litchfield law begins with the premise that adult business can lead to crime, drugs, and prostitution. It's a concept some people dispute. But Wood says the idea is simply to keep the business away from homes, and put it where citizens and police can keep an eye on it.

In this way the law is like zoning in a much bigger city such as Minneapolis, where adult clubs must also concentrate downtown.

But exchange the anonymity of the urban landscape for this small town main street. Jane, a hairdresser who declined to give her last name, thinks the law will do exactly what people hope.

"In a small town, people talk, word gets around, everybody knows eveybody else. It's going to make people think twice if they want their names all around town that they entered this I'm hoping that will deter people," she says.

Nicole Johnson, who owns a coffee shop down the street, says she likes the new law. And for Johnson there's a silver lining, even if the city loses its gamble.

"I think that would not be a very good business to be next door to. I just don't like the idea of that going into Litchfield, sheltered little Litchfield. But as a business person, if there are more people walking by, to and from, chances are we would gain from it," says Johnson.

Just in case a strip club should decide to take Litchfield up on its offer of prime downtown real estate, the ordinance throws up some additional hurdles. The club has to close by 11 p.m. Patrons can't tip the dancers. And they have to stay at least 10 feet away from the stage.

A prominent Minnesota First Amendment lawyer says these measures are proven violations of speech and are ripe for challenge. But he concedes it may never come to that.

Litchfield's approach is creative - it leaves little room for interpretation. But perhaps most important, it is pre-emptive. With a law already on the books and no existing clubs, opening one here would almost guarantee a legal battle. And no business wants to debut in the courts.