January 25, 2000 11:47am
Strip Clubs Take Off in Atlanta
by: James Pilcher
(ATLANTA, GA) -- As thousands of football fans descend on the city for the Super Bowl, big crowds are expected at all of Atlanta's tourist attractions: the King Center, the Margaret Mitchell House, the High Museum and the Gold Club.
Atlanta's strip clubs have become as much a symbol of this city as Coca-Cola. When big events come to town, smiling young women greet out-of-towners at the entrances to hotels, restaurants and sports venues, passing out tiny cards that grant free admission to the clubs. Industry estimates say 60 percent of the clubs' business comes straight from the wallets of visitors.
The clubs cater to conventioneers, going so far as printing restaurant-sounding names on credit card receipts so patrons can submit their expenses to accountants and spouses without fear. The Cheetah, for example, becomes the International Grill on credit card bills.
Industry publications say the Gold Club, perhaps the most elaborate in town, is the nation's most profitable strip club, bringing in more $10 million a year.
The clubs also are popular with professional athletes. Last month, the New York Daily News reported that the Gold Club provided thousands of dollars' worth of strippers and alcohol to NBA stars Patrick Ewing, Dennis Rodman and Charles Oakley.
Many in this Bible Belt town have complained about the clubs for years, but they have continued to thrive.
"These businesses are nothing more than bottom feeders in the tourism industry," said Henry Munford, marketing director for the Georgia World Congress Center, one of the nation's most successful convention centers.
Tourism officials admit a link exists between the clubs and Atlanta's booming convention trade. But they add that planners of events such as the Southern Baptist convention, the 2000 baseball All-Star Game and Sunday's Super Bowl don't come to town because of naked women dancing in high heels.
"Most of the people who make these decisions are women, anyway," Munford said. "And we certainly don't use it to promote the city."
Instead, they credit Atlanta's modern facilities, large airport and affordable hotel rooms. But unlike competitors such as San Antonio, New Orleans and New York, Atlanta has no Riverwalk, French Quarter or Broadway to keep visitors occupied.
Downtown Atlanta is very business-oriented, with much of town shutting down at 5:30 p.m. Where are out-of-towners supposed to go for some nightlife?
Many of the strip clubs are located within a $5 cab ride of the major hotels, while Buckhead - where many of the city's other bars are located - requires a drive that can take as long as 30 minutes because of Atlanta's infamous traffic.
Sophia, a 31-year-old dancer who would give only her stage name, is a veteran of three different Atlanta clubs. They all offer shuttle services from downtown hotels, and the clubs tip concierges, bellboys and taxi drivers if they send guests their way.
"When there's a big show or convention in town, they'll pull up by the busloads," Sophia said while counting out $47 in tips she made during 10 minutes of dancing. "I guess when these guys get out of town, they feel they can let their hair down. I have no trouble taking advantage of that."
The Atlanta strip clubs try to differentiate themselves from exotic dancing that visitors might have experienced in other towns. They use a format that is closer to glitzy Las Vegas show palace than a seedy Times Square peep show.
Unlike many states, dancers in Georgia can be completely nude, no G-strings or pasties. And Atlanta clubs try cater to businessmen with a touch of class - quality meals served on linen tablecloths, marbled bathrooms with attendants and mirrored walls with brass trim.
Alan Begner, a lawyer who represents about half the area's 20 strip clubs and several lingerie modeling parlors, says few cities allow alcohol and completely nude dancing in the same establishment. The threat of losing those liquor licenses keeps the clubs in line.
"The licenses are so valuable that the clubs usually adhere to standards even tougher than those adhered to by local officials," Begner said. "Some of the things that go on in the clubs without liquor would shock the people who are trying to shut the industry down, because there's no check there."
Mayor Bill Campbell has been trying to revoke the license of the Gold Club since the owner and some employees were indicted on federal racketeering charges. Many have used that case to call for more restrictions on the clubs.
"The city needs to ask the question at what price do they pay for financial gain?" said the Rev. Robert Sims, pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church - located just blocks away from Cheetah 3, the city's second-most profitable club.
"As long as we follow the rules, we're not going anywhere," said Ted Gibson, who has managed several adult clubs and currently runs Oasis Goodtime Emporium in suburban Atlanta. "People look for this kind of entertainment, and as long as they're looking, there'll be someone to give it to them."