In March 2006, with local news cameras in tow, Winter Park cops raided Club Harem — the city's only strip club — and arrested seven people on charges ranging from drugs to (overly) dirty dancing. As this newspaper reported `see "Run 'em out of town," Sept. 14, 2006`, documents in the case made clear that the Winter Park police department had targeted the club for months with the explicit goal of putting it out of business.
As one state Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco agent wrote to his superior in January 2006, police detective Thomas Cronin "explained that Winter Park would like to have Club Harem's occupational license revoked at the end of this investigation thus preventing them from doing any further business in Winter Park."
It didn't work back then, but Winter Park never gave up. This year, they took another stab at it. On Aug. 30, weeks after Club Harem erected a huge billboard proclaiming itself the city's only strip joint, the cops came back. Citing drug dealing inside the club — $850 worth in seven months — they closed Club Harem down. (It will remain closed until at least Jan. 26, when the club takes its case to trial.)
The city didn't just have a booby bar in its sights; tattoo parlors and other supposedly ill-reputed businesses were next. In February 2007, Winter Park quietly passed a law banning the construction of new tattoo parlors, pawnshops, used car dealerships and fortune-telling establishments. Eli Tobias, who owns Black Chapel Tattoo Studio, has accused Winter Park officials of trying to run him out of business and says he'll file a lawsuit this month charging the city with harassment and slander.
Moreover, the city did nothing when Redlight Redlight, a world-renowned artisanal-beer bar, asked to have drinking hours pushed back. In fact, the city refused to even consider it. Redlight Redlight closed a few weeks ago and was scheduled to reopen Nov. 4 at its new digs in Orlando.
The takeaway point is clear: If you don't fit Winter Park's long-cherished Park Avenue image of hair salons and expensive boutiques, the city doesn't want you. In fact, it will do everything in its power to run you out.
"The city of Winter Park has decided to look down its nose at people it deems don't fit into its rich city," says Tobias. "They've definitely decided to pick people they don't want in their city. There's a certain group they definitely define as ‘undesirable.' … Everybody knows that about Winter Park."
The city doesn't say much in its defense. Spokeswoman Clarissa Howard responds to inquiries by pointing to a vaguely related Feb. 19 e-mail, in which city planning director Jeff Briggs touts a 2009 $3 million plan to improve the infrastructure along Fairbanks Avenue near I-4, where Black Chapel is located. That e-mail also says the city is working to imitate the posh Lake Mary Boulevard rather than South Orange Blossom Trail. (If anything, that e-mail seems to validate Tobias' suspicions.)
Elected officials were also tight-lipped. Mayor David Strong and all but one commissioner did not return phone calls. The one who did, Beth Dillaha, demurred. "We have fabulous, safe homes," she says. "We're working hard to maintain the quality of life." Dillaha declined to comment on whether businesses are being marginalized as part of that quest.
Tobias has complained of city harassment for nearly a year, and with good reason `see "No ink for you," Feb. 28`. He was denied a liquor license and temporarily shut down after a licensing snafu. He heard city officials make allegations of drug dealing at his shop and watched cops lurk around his property. To this day, he says, cops routinely park in front of his shop and pull people over in front of his business in an effort to scare away customers.
Tobias complained. The police department's Internal Affairs division cleared the cops of any wrongdoing. Now he says he's filing a lawsuit. His goal is to get enough money to move his shop to the more tat-friendly Orlando. (Winter Park's police department declined to comment for this story.)
Club Harem's situation is no more encouraging. On Aug. 30, police and state officials slapped the bar with an emergency order to cease its operations, based on 27 reported incidents of narcotics sales and 23 counts of unnatural and lascivious acts, exposure of sexual organs and soliciting alcoholic beverages from customers during the seven months of the investigation.
Club Harem attorney Steve Mason (who has previously represented Orlando Weekly in its dealings with the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation) calls the police's behavior during the investigation "disgusting." He says one Winter Park cop derided the club, whose clientele is mostly African-American, as "Harlem." One dancer who wasn't charged in the case said in an affidavit that an undercover cop routinely sent her sexually graphic text messages. But allegations of police chicanery are beside the point.
Mason believes the goal wasn't to stop illegal activity that may be happening at the club, but rather, to use that activity as an excuse to close Club Harem. "`The Winter Park` police department is pulling and pushing the wagon," he says. "You don't even have to connect the dots on this one. `City officials and Winter Park police` don't give a rat's ass about people getting charged with crimes. They just want to get rid of this adult club in Winter Park."
Intentionally or not, Winter Park ran out Redlight Redlight by inaction. That bar and other Hannibal Square establishments have tried to get Hannibal Square's drinking hours extended since 2005 to make them more competitive. (Bars in that vicinity have to stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m. during the week and midnight on weekends.) The city has refused to even consider it.
"The rules are a little skewed," Redlight Redlight owner Brent Hernandez says. "They just have an unwillingness to change."[email protected]