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Strip clubs, gangsters and the City Council: On its last legs (Part 1)

(Day 1 in a 3-Day Series)

The pole provides stability. 

Angelina needs it first and foremost to spin, but recently, she’s found it to be her axis in a world slipping away. The mother of three wraps herself around the pole and dances so she can provide what she says is the steady income supporting her family.

Then the music ends, and she scoops the green bills to her chest, exiting to applause.

“You can just be yourself up here,” Angelina says. She pauses before adding, “I don’t know what I’ll do without this place. I really don’t.”
Not a block away, Sgt. Eric Hefel stands guard, watching for spats that could escalate into street fights. 
At this exact spot one year ago, officers broke up a brawl they say included 50-some fighters.

“Obviously we get worried,” Hefel says, scanning the crowd for problems. “When you have these bigger fights, we’re outnumbered 20 to 1… There are times I get nervous.”
Three years ago, the East Dubuque City Council bypassed being nervous and wound up at worried.

“My biggest fear is that somebody’s going to get killed,” said the town’s mayor, James Hanley.

He cited city-gathered statistics as the reason for concern, including one number that says that 55 percent of the town’s arrests occurred between midnight and 4 a.m. in 2006.

So, in September 2006, city officials passed an ordinance requiring the town’s taverns to close at 2 a.m. instead of 3:30 a.m. They also determined that they would shut down the town’s adult entertainment facilities (more commonly called strip clubs) in the downtown area.

But instead of immediately implementing the changes, the council gave bar owners three years to prepare for the first phase of the two-phase closing plan.

On Saturday, time is up.
George Young pleaded.

“(This) could be the difference between me making my mortgage and me not,” he said.

On April 7, the longtime owner of George & Dale’s Sports Bar & Grill stood before East Dubuque’s Ordinance Committee and asked the group to reverse its decision.

Young told the committee members his own numbers – that 30 percent of his business was done in the 90 minutes he’d be losing via the ordinance. He argued that so many people besides him made their living between midnight and 4 a.m., including the dancers, the bar tenders, the bouncers and the other tavern owners.

“Please don’t do this,” he begged.

But at meeting’s end, the plan stayed the same.

On Sunday, May 1, the bars will close their doors at 3 a.m. as the first step toward the eventual closing time of 2 a.m. by May 2013.
Hanley wishes things were different.

“This is an incredibly emotional issue,” he said, “and it’s one that has a lot of ties.”

The mayor’s son plays on a T-ball team coached by tavern owner Mike Meyer, and Hanley’s father is constantly praising the footlong chili dogs he receives from Young’s establishment.

“I have no ax to grind,” Hanley said. “I know these guys. I grew up around them. I don’t want them to fail.”

He also knows the crime wave isn’t the bar owners’ fault.

“It’s not to say the bar owner are bad people, or that they caused this problem … but you tell me that these numbers aren’t alarming,” he said, before rattling off what he deemed the most problematic issues, including that:
  • East Dubuque has the highest crime rate in Jo Daviess County, with 1,077 arrests last year. Galena ranked second with 972. 
  • The hours between midnight and 4 a.m. produced 45 percent of East Dubuque’s arrests in 2009. Hanley credits the ordinance for decreasing crime from 55 percent in the same hours in 2005. 
  • Six “major” fights resulted in participants being transported to the hospital in 2009. 
  • The city employs seven full-time police officers and 10 part-time officers to monitor crime. Stockton, which has about the same population as East Dubuque, employs four full-time officers and five part-time officers. 

For Hanley, the answer to eliminating most of these problems is simple.

“It’s just common sense that you will have less crime by closing earlier,” he said.
Meyer never intended to own bars and adult entertainment clubs.

“This was absolutely not what I wanted to do,” he said. “In fact, I was determined not to, but it’s something in my blood, I guess.” 

His uncle owned two downtown staples – The Other Side, and the High Hat, which later re-opened as The Coliseum. His stepfather owned The River Queen, which later re-opened as the strip club The Black Cat in 1969.

“I started working in downtown East Dubuque three days after I turned 18, and I ended up being good at it,” he said.

Eventually, he found himself following in his family’s footsteps, and he now runs two bars – Looney Tunes (previously The River Queen) and The Other Side. He also runs the adult entertainment club The Box Office, formerly known as either The Circle or Diamond Jim’s/The Isabella Queen.

“I don’t really want a strip club,” Meyer said. “I do it because it makes money. By my other two bars, they’re not going to make me any money if they go ahead with the change.”

Get him started on the subject, and he grows visibly upset.

“They tell us that those 90 minutes won’t make a difference, that it shouldn’t determine whether or not we succeed, but it does,” he said. “It matters to us and to our bottom line.”

Meyer estimates 85 percent of his customers come from Dubuque, where the bars close at 2 a.m. because the state just across the river has different laws.

“What competitive edge do we have if we have to close at 2 also?” he asked. Meyer further takes issue with the city’s statistics. “To hear them talk, you’d think all of those arrests during those late hours are related to the bars.”

According to the city, 481 arrests happened between midnight and 4 a.m. in 2009, including traffic arrests, warrant arrests, and theft.

But Meyer said the bars cannot be held responsible for those categories, and if the 157 traffic arrests and the 55 warrant arrests are removed from the equation, then the downtown is only responsible for 14 percent of the crimes occurring during those four hours.
Last Saturday, East Dubuque Police Chief Steve O’Connell cruised Main Street.

He was one of four officers on duty, a number he tries to maintain on Saturdays and Sundays, although he’ll schedule three in a pinch.

During the week, he likes two officers on duty at night.

“It’s been pretty quiet,” he says.

And it is. But that’s only because the clock has yet to strike the magic hour of 1:45 a.m.

Just as the bars in Dubuque close their doors, the East Dubuque establishments prepare for their busiest time. At 2 a.m. on the dot, the party busses roll in, depositing dozens of would-be drinkers. Limos and taxis follow in their wake, and East Dubuque comes alive.

Some weekends require all four officers to effectively police the one street.

“The problem is that one night is quiet and uneventful, and we have a well-behaved crowd,” O’Connell said. “Then the next weekend will be just the opposite. You don’t really know what’s going to happen.”

Last Saturday was quiet, comparatively.Officers arrested one passed-out man for public intoxication, and police conducted a handful of other traffic arrests.

“But it still costs us money when you consider that we are going to be working from 2 a.m. until 4 a.m.,” O’Connell said. “We’re spending extra money both on how many people we have on and the length of time they’re here.” 

The city shells out about $31,000 annually to staff the part-time officers and to pay for the overtime hours required for these extra 90 minutes that would be eliminated by the ordinance.
While police patrolled, Rae Thomas mixed drinks.

“It’s not what I want to do, but I had to do something different, and this is it,” she said.

The Dubuque resident spent two years stripping. She was one of about 150 girls employed by the town’s stripping industry.

“I never was ashamed or embarrassed about it,” she said, “but the city wanted us to close, so here I am.”

“Here” is Looney Tunes, which provides the stripper-turned-bartender only a fraction of the income she brought home previously. Thomas said she understands budget crises just as well as the city officials.

“Because of their decisions, I’m having to work more hours to bring home less,” she said.

The $300-plus a night at The Box Office provided enough to pay for college and her 5-year-old son.

“Honestly, this whole business of closing down the strip clubs and stripping back the bar hours, well, it bums me out,” she said. “I always thought that what we had going on, in terms of being a destination, was a good thing.”

She turns to answer another customer’s call for beer, before saying, “We’re just losing everything here.”