The New Orleans City Council should cap and eventually reduce the number of strip clubs in the French Quarter, and police should strictly enforce existing bans on illegal activity in those clubs, according to a study released this week by the staff of the City Planning Commission.
But while the staff said a ceiling on the number of clubs is needed, it said reductions should come through attrition and new spacing requirements, not through forced closures.
The commission will consider the study at its meeting Tuesday and then send its suggestions to the council, which requested the study.
The report supports those who say strip clubs contribute to prostitution, drug use and other illegal activity in and near the French Quarter, and it takes a dim view of the argument that it’s not the council’s job to regulate residents’ vices.
That debate gained new traction last June when 19-year-old Jasilas Wright, a dancer at Stiletto’s Cabaret on Bourbon Street, died after being left on Interstate 10 in Metairie by a man investigators said was her pimp.
Soon afterward, local Covenant House leader Jim Kelly urged the council to place age restrictions on dancers working in such businesses. Months later, at least a half-dozen French Quarter clubs drew sanctions from state officials over allegations of prostitution and drug dealing on their premises.
The council honored Kelly’s request in January by voting to ban all new strip-club employees younger than 21 from dancing nude or partially nude, putting a temporary ban on new clubs and instructing the Planning Commission to conduct the study that came out this week.
Kelly also lobbied the Legislature for a statewide ban on younger dancers, which Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law this month.
Kelly and others have pushed authorities to reduce the number of strip clubs in the city and to keep a closer watch on them — with the increased monitoring to be paid for by a new tax on the clubs.
The Planning Commission report did not recommend a new tax, but it said enforcement was “sporadic, not coordinated and not sufficiently visible.”
The staff also did not include Kelly’s suggestion to require that clubs hire dancers as regular employees with standard benefits, and Kelly conceded that labor law enforcement is likely outside of the council’s purview.
“I know we still have many steps ahead of us, but this is a great cornerstone,” he said of the study.
Some club owners took a different view. Tim Spratt, with Kirkendoll Entertainment, which runs the Penthouse Club on Iberville Street, said he intends to protest the study Tuesday. “There’s some misinformation about how the industry is portrayed,” he said.
Of the city’s 23 strip clubs, 19 are in the French Quarter and 14 are within the seven-block Bourbon Street entertainment district. The planners recommended cutting the 14 on Bourbon in half over time, citing research indicating that limiting the number of strip clubs in some cities has led to decreased crime.
The report did not blame strip clubs for the French Quarter’s ills, but it said reducing the concentration of them should “protect neighborhood character” and improve pedestrians’ experiences.
The proposed cap on clubs along Bourbon would start at 14, but the staff said that number would drop to seven over time as some clubs voluntarily go out of business and others are shut down for violations. The report also recommends imposing a spacing requirement for clubs: only one club on either side of the street per city block, although all existing clubs could continue operating.
Outside the Bourbon Street entertainment district, zoning laws do not permit strip clubs anywhere in the city. And while existing clubs in those zones can remain, the study says, they could not reopen if they close for at least six months.
The upshot, Kelly said, is that in time the number of clubs citywide might drop to seven.
The report also says the council should create a specific license for strip clubs and subject them to annual inspections before their licenses are renewed. Finally, clubs would be required to retool their entrances so as to shield dancers from the view of passers-by.
City and state laws already are in line with best practices, the staff said, forbidding sexual activity at the clubs, customers touching dancers or performances off-stage by partially nude dancers. Further, all employees must carry police-issued identification cards.
Enforcement, however, is a problem, the staff said. It said many clubs feature VIP rooms or private booths where touching and more explicit conduct often occurs.