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Nicollet: a moral battleground
By Mark Steil
Minnesota Public Radio
March 4, 2002

The sex industry grows | Small towns react | The legal battle continues | Nicollet - the moral battleground | Exotic dance - is it art?

The courts of the United States have clearly said that nude dance clubs are legal. But far from being a green light for the industry, court rulings seem only to intensify the debate. One reason for that is because opponents feel a more important issue is at stake, one beyond reach of even the longest legal arm. They say morality is the real issue. But like a mirage on a hot summer day, it seems everyone sees something different.

20-year old Matt Halley is co-owner of the Mirage, a strip club in Nicollet, Minn. Residents of the town are upset that Halley opened the club without the town knowing about it ahead of time. Nicollet had no ordinances on the books to regulate such businesses.
View more images.
Listen to Halley's comments.

(MPR Photo/Mark Steil)

The southern Minnesota town of Nicollet is the latest to confront this shimmering moral illusion. It all started when 20-year-old Matt Halley and a friend had a powerful daydream.

"My partner and I were selling roofs over the summer for a construction company out in the Cities," Halley says. "We said, 'OK - we're young, we got some money now, it's time to do something. Let's start a company, what can we do?'"

Halley had attended college in Mankato, and his partner had dated women who danced in strip clubs. They put the two together and decided to start a gentlemen's club in Mankato. But the laws governing strip bars were too strict there. They needed to obtain a cabaret license among other things.

So they started driving, visiting small towns near Mankato. They found what they were looking for in Nicollet - an empty factory building covering a quarter of a city block, and better yet - no city laws on strip clubs.

"To tell everyone the truth, we were jumping up and down like little kids. We were happy. As soon as we saw this building we knew it was the one," says Halley.

After a hectic week rebuilding, the business opened last September. Its name, The Mirage Gentlemen's Club, made it seem like the business might be temporary. But despite the hopes of area residents, the club proved to be no illusion and continues in business. And like most adult businesses, it's fighting back in the courts.

Danny Anderson is a member of the River Valley Christian Church in New Ulm. "To make some quick cash in a highly questionable business - I don't know how he can sleep at night," Anderson says of the club's owner. Anderson and another church member, Jake MacAulay, talked with MPR's Mark Steil about their opposition to the club. Listen to their comments.
(MPR Photo/Mark Steil)

The club sued after county officials forced the Mirage to close for several days because of building code violations. Co-owner Matt Halley freely admits that most people don't like the strip club. But he has legal cover courtesy of the courts, and feels he has the moral high ground as well.

"What is right and wrong, what should be done and shouldn't - it's a personal belief," says Halley. "Everyone's morals are different. If people don't like me being here, then don't frequent my club."

With no way to shut down the club through the legal system, opponents are trying to change minds. On most nights, several demonstrators stand outside the club carrying signs with slogans like "Lust is slavery." One of the leaders, Paul Furey, says morality can be a powerful persuader.

"Either you act or such things will grow," Furey says. "Especially in small town Minnesota. If you can't take back your own territory then you're in trouble."

Furey hopes the group's presence will scare customers away, maybe even force the club to close. For a couple of nights they videotaped customers entering the strip club, but decided to end the practice as too confrontational.

At least once they faced counter-demonstrators. A group of high school students stood outside the Mirage one night with signs supporting the club. Furey says the club is popular with high schoolers because some can get in. Since it doesn't serve alcohol, anyone over 18 years old can enter.

One of the dancers they might see at the Mirage is Stacey Zent, who's not happy with the demonstrators.

"We need to take a look and say, 'Are we getting better as a society or are we getting worse?' And if we're getting worse, we need to stop the problem."

- Jake MacAulay, member of the River Valley Christian Church in New Ulm

"They claim to be a Christian group, and I would actually like to get one of them in here and throw some quotes at them," says Zent. "The stuff that they're doing is just as wrong as what they think we're doing. For one thing, it says in the Bible not to judge others, and that's exactly what they're doing."

The fight over the Mirage resonated throughout the state. Several nearby towns quickly passed laws governing adult businesses, something Nicollet lacked. The Nicollet city council is considering adult business laws now, but it's unclear what impact they'll have on the Mirage.

But while they're acting on the regulatory side, Nicollet officials are staying out of the moral issues. City administrator Dan Wietecha says the reason for that is simple - the court system has ruled that clubs like the Mirage are constitutionally protected.

"If somebody has a moral argument against it they're free to voice that opinion," says Wietecha. "But we're really going to look at it from a neutral standpoint."

That means city council members will look at legal issues like whether the club is causing traffic, noise or crowd problems. But it will not discuss moral considerations, like whether it's acceptable for people to watch nude dancers.

Danny Anderson says public officials should speak out of the moral question. He's a member of the River Valley Christian Church in New Ulm.

"Just because something's legal doesn't make it morally right," Anderson says. "To make some quick cash in a highly questionable business - I don't know how he can sleep at night."

Strip club dancer Stacey Zent has been in the business for 10 years. She criticizes the protesters as hypocritical. "The stuff that they're doing is just as wrong as what they think we're doing...It says in the Bible not to judge others, and that's exactly what they're doing."
(MPR Photo/Mark Steil)

Anderson believes calling attention to the Mirage will make people think about the moral dimensions of the club's business. Fellow church member Jake MacAulay agrees.

"We need to take a look and say, 'Are we getting better as a society or are we getting worse?'" says MacAulay. "And if we're getting worse we need to stop the problem - not treat it, stop it."

But while some look at the Mirage and see moral decline, others have a much different perception. Dancer Stacey Zent says it's entertainment, not a moral slippery slope. She says the demonstrators should spend their time on more important issues.

"They obviously have a lot of energy to come out and protest against this stuff," says Zent. "Why don't they go out and do some good with it? Maybe volunteering some time at social services to help the children that have been...molested in their homes. Use their time constructively. And stop harassing grown adults."

The issue of the Nicollet dance club is about realty and illusion. Each side claims the moral high ground, - it's the other guy who's looking at the mirage.

The fight does not end there. Other communities around the region face the same issue. Amid the shifting ground of the moral debate, one thing is certain - adult entertainment is a growth industry searching for new markets. And small Minnesota towns are on that list.