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Over the last several months, I’ve seen a steady parade of fear mongers show up and convince a Common Council committee to turn down applications for a strip club in Downtown Milwaukee.
I know that using the phrase "fear mongering" is a difficult one, but there is no other way to really understand what is going on. I’ve watched three consecutive hearings before the council’s Licensing Committee, hour after hour after tedious hour.
And each time I’ve seen the fear mongering in action and marveled at how easy it was for a majority of aldermen on this committee to cave in. There was hardly a backbone in the bunch, and each time, the impression I got was that most of the aldermen already had their minds made up before the hearing even began.
For those of you who don’t know, here’s a definition from Wikipedia:
"Fear mongering is the use of fear to influence the opinions and actions of others towards some specific end. The feared object or subject is oftentimes exaggerated and the pattern of fear mongering is usually one of repetition, in order to continuously reinforce the intended effects of this tactic, sometimes in the form of a vicious circle."
That perfectly describes what has happened the last three times that Silk Exotic has applied for a license to open a strip club in or near Downtown.
Here is what the fear mongering opposition looks like ...
One category I call disruption of the way things are.
I have seen people stand up and protest that the club will cause an increase in foot traffic and in car traffic and cause parking problems and cause litter and be noisy.
There are a couple of things that are conveniently ignored by the people who buy into this.
Silk contracted with a valet service for the club it wanted to open on the corner of Milwaukee and Mason Streets. It’s the same valet service that works with all the fancy restaurants along Milwaukee Street. The service contracted for over 300 parking spots in nearby structures.
The other thing is that all of the endorsed development plans for this area call for adding retail outlets along the streets. Any expert will tell you that one thing that comes along with expanding retail outlets is more traffic and more parking issues.
None of that made any difference to the aldermen, however. Ald. Robert Puente especially seemed to buy into the idea of this horrible increase in traffic that the opponents predicted.
Facts didn’t seem to matter.
The second kind of categorical protest is the sleazy guy objection.
If you believe all the people who have testified you’d think that the customers of strip clubs are sexual predators who smoke cigarettes and throw the butts on the sidewalk and urinate in the gutter and attack women walking to class or to their cars or to evening mass at a nearby church.
The interim president of MSOE testified last week. In his testimony, he said that he knew strip clubs had dangerous patrons because he saw the police block off the corner of Water Street and Juneau Avenue on weekend nights and that it was because of the presence of an "establishment" nearby. The cops do block off the area, but I’ve talked to many of the cops who are there and the closing and police presence has nothing to do with Art’s Performing Center, a low-end strip club on Juneau. It’s all the drunks who pile out of the bars at closing time. The strip club doesn’t even register on the cop’s radar.
Richard Abdoo, the former president of WE Energies, lives Downtown and he testified that he expected that if he and his wife walked around they would run into "undesirable" people and that it "breaks my heart."
I have deep doubt that many of these people have ever been in a high-end strip club. Cover charges are high. Drinks are expensive. Valet parking costs money. These clubs are not places for ne’er-do-wells. These are men who travel, who have jobs, who have disposable income and who choose to dispose of some of it in a place that is protected by the Constitution of the United States. Each one of these aldermen should go to a high-end strip club and take an honest look. Nobody is assaulting anyone. Security is very intense. None of the customers is panting or drooling.
But again, facts don’t seem to matter.
The next category of protest is the economic one.
This one claims, in usually dire tones, that if a strip club opens then all the property values are going to plunge until your condo or building is going to lose so much value you won’t be able to give it away.
During the last hearing on this Ald. Nik Kovac and committee chairman Tony Zielinski both seemed to be enthralled and convinced by this argument.
Kevin Bale, who is the executive director of Madison Medical Associates, said that if the strip club went in, his offices, which lease four floors across the street, would move to Mequon. Mike Burr runs the financial business for Sen. Herb Kohl. He testified he was concerned that Silk would "destabilize" the area, and he would be concerned about an increase in "unwanted access to our building" which shares an alley with the proposed site. Apparently he believes people will stumble out of Silk, walk around the block and try to get into his building.
The fact is that there are studies that show property values have sometime declined in areas where there are adult entertainment venues. But almost all those studies point out that the decrease in values was part of an overall decrease in values in the area. There is no evidence that property values drop when a high-end strip club is located in a particular area.
Contrarily an exhaustive research project conducted by Realty Executives in Milwaukee came to the opposite conclusion.
"The research shows that having an establishment that presents adult entertain has no direct negative effect on the real estate value of either residential or commercial properties in proximity to those establishments."
Once more, facts don’t seem to matter.
The next kind of objection is the "we just want what we want" argument.
Beth Weirick is the executive director of the Downtown organization. She testified that Silk would be "dark and foreboding" and that it would not draw the "kind of customers we seek."
She said that she wanted expanded "entertainment opportunities" but apparently that means her kind of entertainment. It’s that kind of narrow-minded fear mongering that is especially dangerous.
The final objection is the moral one.
Nobody talks about this because as the city attorney for the committee pointed out, moral and religious objections are not part of the evidence that the committee can consider.
Finally, the facts don’t seem to matter.
Here are some facts. Real facts.
A strip club is a legal business. It is highly self-regulated. There have been only occasional minor police issues in 15 years that Silk has operated in the northwest side of town. Customers generally are well-behaved citizens who might well be your neighbor or coworker.
Dancers, by and large, are normal women. They are wives and mothers, and many of them are working to raise money to pay for education. It beats the hell out of a minimum wage working in the cafeteria of a local college or a fast food restaurant or as a clerk in a store.
Silk was planning to operate on the fourth floor of this building. The only signage outside would be a neon letter "S."
Are there women who have been victims of sex trafficking in strip clubs? Of course there are. But instead of fighting the strip club, opponents of sex trafficking would be far more productive raising funds to help the women caught in this trap. The sex-trafficked strip club population is minimal.
There is one other fact to consider.
Silk is going to keep filing lawsuit after lawsuit over the failure to get a license. A federal court jury has already signaled that the club's owners have a claim, the first one amounting to just under $1 million. That figure is mostly likely going to keep rising, and it sure seems like a lot of money.
Silk is also going to keep filing applications for a license. Before this last one, owners wanted to open in a deserted area of Walker's Point, and opponents used the same phony arguments to doom that attempt.
There are aldermen who have supported the efforts of Silk to get a license. But unfortunately, most of them seem to have bought into the fear mongering, the kind that makes people think they have a monopoly on what’s good for a city.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.