Strip club to expand, walking a fine line

Officials question 2nd-floor entertainer ban

October 18, 2006|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,Sun Reporter

Baltimore's newest strip club, Scores, is poised to expand but without the striptease acts that its owner says draw pro athletes and diplomats alike.

Scores owner Brian Shulman won approval from the zoning appeals board recently to open a second-floor lounge at his Fallsway club but with the caveat that there would be no adult entertainment there.

The approval has city and liquor board officials wondering, however, what the prohibition means. They say there's no way they can stop entertainers from hanging out in the upstairs lounge as long as the women are dressed and not performing. The officials point out that lounge patrons will still be able to watch striptease performances via a large cut-through between the first and second floors.

"This has the potential for a problem," said David Tanner, executive director of the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals, which voted unanimously to give Shulman his expansion permit.

"It's a potentially volatile environment," said Samuel T. Daniels Jr., chief liquor inspector and acting executive secretary of the Baltimore liquor board, which oversees the city's adult entertainment industry.

Shulman, who bought the club, formerly known as the Atlantis, in 2004 for $1.8 million, has been trying to gain permission to expand for many months but has been stymied in part by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which is building a $13 million soup kitchen and employment center in the block next to Scores.

Lawyers for Associated Catholic Charities, which will operate the Our Daily Bread facility, contacted city zoning officials as recently as June in an effort to block the expansion of any adult entertainment beyond the first floor, according to zoning appeals board files.

"On several occasions we have corresponded with [city] representatives in relation to certain plans for unlawful expansion of ... adult-entertainment use at [Scores]," wrote attorney Ryan J. Potter in a June 16 letter to numerous city officials.

Church leaders backed off after Scores attorney Fred M. Lauer reassured them that the upstairs lounge would be a bar only and that there would be no nude dancing, according to a June 28 letter to city officials from Lauer updating them on the situation.

Technically, that is still the case, but questions have arisen as to how much patrons who sit in the upstairs lounge will benefit from the adult entertainment below. Scores entertainers begin their act at the top of a long metal staircase that starts on the second floor and connects to a first-floor stage. About midway down, there's a landing for pole dancing.

At a VIP opening of the club in March, the entertainers took full advantage of the pole dance landing even though the upstairs lounge had yet to open.

"This is dangerous," said Daniels, the chief liquor inspector, referring to the difficulty of enforcing the ban. "Obviously we will have to keep an eye on this."

Shulman could not be reached for comment, but his attorney, Lauer, said the club will respect the adult entertainment prohibition.

"Whatever we are legally allowed to do, we'll do," Lauer said.

A floor plan for Scores' second-floor lounge shows several private lounges, but it was unclear how those areas would be used given the zoning appeals board caveat.

Potter, the attorney for the archdiocese, did not return telephone calls to his office.

At the appeal hearing last week, Shulman and his attorney played down dancing girls and focused on the club's history. They said the cut-through had been there for years and presented an affidavit from the previous owner who testified that he had permission from the city to use the second floor for "business-related purposes."

"We are here to clarify with the board that the use [of the second floor] is a continuation of use that was established with the Atlantis club," said Lauer.

A representative of the city planning department told the zoning appeals board that his agency was opposed to the upstairs lounge because it would, as a result of the cut-through, allow an illegal expansion of adult entertainment activities at the site, which is in a section of the city that is not zoned for strip bars. The club has stayed open as a nonconforming use because it existed before the establishment of zoning laws that prohibited nude performances in certain areas.

But the appeals board sided with Scores and approved permits that will allow Shulman to open the lounge and use the third and fourth floors of his building for offices and storage.

"It would have been difficult to have the new owner put the floor back," said Tanner, who added that the board also took into consideration that there was no one present at the hearing who opposed the club owner's request.

Still, Tanner said he has his doubts about the decision. Asked whether the board's adult entertainment restriction would prohibit performers from even entering the upstairs lounge, he said he couldn't say.

"It's a good question," Tanner said. "`No adult entertainment' is pretty clear. Still, if an entertainer walks through the lounge, is that a violation?"

Said the liquor board's Daniels: "I would advise the owner not to play with matches."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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