Pine Grove — For years, St. Helena Parish warred with the strip club in a nondescript warehouse building. A few years ago, the owner pleaded guilty to running an illegal gambling den. The lounge has closed twice under inauspicious circumstances — torched by a suspected arson and shuttered after inspectors found a used condom in the VIP room and bugs in the liquor.
Now, the notorious Oak Ridge Lounge has reopened.
In 2012, state Alcohol and Tobacco Control agents found evidence of drug use and cheaper liquor being sold from high-end bottles, in addition to the bugs and condom. Oak Ridge was fined, and its liquor license was suspended for eight weeks. Without liquor, the bar closed its doors, and the weeks stretched into years. The bar briefly reopened last August, though it was a “fiasco,” according to the current manager.
New management took over last month promising to “transform” the club, and the St. Helena Police Jury on Jan. 13 approved Oak Ridge’s alcohol permits for another year.
Pastors and police jurors say they’re sick of fighting the strip club over its right to offer a nude revue. But neither will they shed any tears if the club can’t draw a crowd and is forced to close.
Oak Ridge management says reopening has been “rocky,” as it tries to lure people through the door. It’s trying to rebrand the club. But it may take more than a new approach and a fresh coat of paint to change public perception.
“They call it ‘The Greasy Pole.’ ... We want to get away from that. ... I’m not an idiot. I know it’s going to be difficult,” said a new manager who identified himself only as Joe.
“It’s a safety issue,” he said of his decision not to give his last name.
The lounge is encouraging customers to call it “Club Kinjite” after a Japanese word for “forbidden.” A hand-drawn poster on the door heralds the new name.
“No unescorted women” is written below in red.
By 10 p.m. on a Friday night in January, a handful of customers paid the $10 cover to enter the club on La. 16 just east of Pine Grove. Over the next several hours, the number climbed to about two dozen. They played pool, saddled up to the bar or sat around the horseshoe stage where the pole is located. A sign advertises lap dances for $35, and employees say a half-hour with a dancer in the VIP room upstairs goes for $200.
A member of the club staff stopped two dancers from getting too close to customers.
“We’ve got rules. ... I ain’t trying to run no whorehouse,” the staffer said in a phone interview a few days later. She identified herself as a manager named Holly, saying she didn’t want to be harassed if she gave her full name.
“So far I think everyone hates us. ... People just hate us because evidently they think we were a whorehouse.”
Oak Ridge Lounge opened in 2000, owner Bobby Vaughn said. The parish, spurred by religious leaders, challenged the club’s right to showcase topless dancers, taking the fight to court. But the Police Jury failed. The jury later passed rules governing sexually oriented businesses; however, Oak Ridge and The Mansion, another strip club, aren’t covered by those regulations under a grandfather clause.
“You definitely can’t do anything to shut them down (for topless dancing),” jury President Theo McCray said. “People think the Police Jury can just do anything. We have to operate within the law. ... I’m not supposed to go over there and investigate. I don’t have a badge.”
The Moral Alliance of St. Helena, which opposed the strip clubs, also has largely given up the fight. Former leader Richard Sandberg pastors a new congregation in Livingston Parish.
“There’s not a lot that the church groups are able to do,” he said. “The Police Jury basically went and let the strip clubs do whatever they want.”
Pastor Don Meadows said community interest in the issue has waned.
“We took it as far as we could take it with the Police Jury, and they made their decision. ... It’s kind of hard to make a stand when there isn’t much support on the Police Jury itself,” he said. “I’m not going to pick up the baton and go after that anymore, but someone else may.”
The club’s legal standing may be irrelevant if it can’t drum up enough business to stay afloat, as one juror anticipates.
McCray said he drives past Oak Ridge frequently and has never seen more than three cars outside. He said the club’s success seems to rise and fall with its notoriety.
“These people ride and feed off free publicity. ... Without the publicity, they don’t do well,” he said. “They just don’t have cars there. ... It seems it will eventually die out.”
His cousin, Warren McCray, who represents Pine Grove on the Police Jury, agreed.
“I don’t think they’ll stay open long,” Warren McCray said.
Vaughn has no intention of closing Oak Ridge again.
“It’s rocky, but any new business is gonna be rocky. ... I don’t have any plans to close any time soon,” he said.
He and the managers are optimistic customers will welcome the club and its changes.
“It’s gonna be different because it has to be,” Joe said.
He wants Oak Ridge to be “someplace you want to go to, rather than some place you kind of end up.”
Sake, Japanese beer, sushi and dancers in kimonos are all components of his “grand idea” for the new Asian-inspired theme, assuming the bar survives its first few months after reopening. It would be a vast departure from the fries and mixed drinks served in plastic cups currently offered.
One aspect unlikely to fully change is the name. Because the bar is grandfathered into parish ordinance under its current name, managers can’t just drop Oak Ridge. They will probably have to call it Oak Ridge Lounge Presents Club Kinjite, or similar language, as they encourage patrons to adopt the new moniker, Holly said.
“We have to get rid of that stigma that Oak Ridge has — that everyone hates them,” she said.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.