Up and down Washington Avenue, nightclubs that tickle the fancy of regional alcohol distributors advertisers, peddle their entertainment. One promises “Lap Dance Tuesday,” complete with evocative poster. Another cites its burlesque show.
So, to Club Madonna owner and prominent Miami Beach businessman Leroy Griffith, his request being heard by the Miami Beach City Commission at its November 17 meeting seems like a no-brainer. Griffith wants to be permitted to serve alcohol to patrons at his adult club the same way the other nightclubs that define the very character of Washington Avenue, can.
The holdup: a very city ordinance disallowing clubs featuring nude entertainment from selling alcohol.
For the first time since Griffith began requesting city approval of his plan – dating back to at least 2004 – the business owner, who has operated clubs on South Beach since before “South Beach” meant anything in the tourism industry, is encouraged.
“I don’t think there are any commissioners up there with a personal grudge right now, which has always been a problem,” Griffith said.
This issue first appeared before the city commission in 2004, when it passed a first reading, 5 – 2. Only after its second reading — and really, when trouble started — did commissioners change their minds and vote the issue down, 4-3. At that time, Jane Gross, wife of then-sitting commissioner Saul Gross, convinced the commission that lifting the ban would negatively affect the neighborhood.
“I feel bad for [Club Madonna]. Is that one of those old Miami Beach laws from back when they wouldn’t let Jews and African-Americans go places too?” – Beach club patron Jose Velasco
Subsequent to the meeting, Griffith filed a libel lawsuit against Jane Gross, who made unflattering remarks about Griffith’s tax history, and another lawsuit against the city to force them to reconsider the issue at hand.
The drama wasn’t left there, however. After attorneys representing the city commission approached Griffith, asking him to drop these lawsuits, and pay the cost of attorney fees for the other side — some $30,000 — Griffith filed an ethics complaint with the state — alleging extortion.
The ethics commission supported Griffith’s application, alleging that the commission engaged in “wholly inappropriate behavior,” unfairly intermingling personal issues with government affairs.
Eventually the legal dust settled and Griffith continued to operate his club. But he has not given up his effort and feels it might be time for a reasonable city commission to execute fundamental fairness.
Club Madonna is the only fully nude club on South Beach, and part of a minority of strip clubs in Miami that are prohibited from serving alcohol.
Currently, Club Madonna patrons are directed around the corner to Jerry’s Deli, where a 2-for-1 discount card can be applied to alcohol purchases.
“If the City’s position is that serving alcohol causes so many problems, then fine – make it so no one can serve it,” Griffith said. “We shouldn’t be singled out.”
Historically, the argument against Griffith’s request has been that the combination of adult entertainment and alcohol service could lead to crime and disturbances. The club, like many if not most in compact South Beach, is not far from public school grounds.
The argument, though, has never been supported by actual facts or data. Griffith points out that the club is not open during school hours, making that particular argument particularly weak.
According to Griffith, the “disturbance” argument isn’t much stronger.
“My attorney has studies that show that adult clubs historically have a lot less problems than other nightclubs,” Griffith said. He also said that his attorney pulled police records that show that very few disturbances related to the club and that the number has even declined in recent years.
“The disturbances we do have are often when guests find out that they can’t order a drink and get irate,” Griffith said.
The City’s current policy actually pushes Club Madonna guests out on the street, back and forth between bars and the club; or to shops that sell alcohol and back to the club.
It’s a specious argument, Griffith says, that somehow having his customers strolling back and forth to the club is somehow preferable to the same simple bar service in Club Madonna that all other clubs enjoy.
Jose Velasco is a regular visitor to South Beach clubs and said they he didn’t know Club Madonna was barred from selling alcohol.
“That’s pretty funny on South Beach,” he said. “Considering what goes on, the drinking – and more – right out in the open in most clubs. I feel bad for [Club Madonna]. Is that one of those old Miami Beach laws from back when they wouldn’t let Jews and African-Americans go places too?”
Velasco said that one could easily have a drink on Ocean Drive while women bathed topless on the sand a few meters away.
“It’s a pretty tight-ass law for a tourist town,” he added.
Mayor Matti Bower is the only current member of the city commission who has heard the item before. For the others, this will be their first time considering the issue.
Commissioner Michael Gongora, generally considered the friendliest member of the body to South Beach entertainment, said he is unsure how he would vote.
“This will be my first time seeing the full presentation,” Gongora told SunPost. “I want to be open-minded and try to do the right thing. I can see [Griffith’s] fairness argument and we have to weigh that against [risk].”
Gongora, though, did recognize that Club Madonna doesn’t operate during school hours, which might contribute to what he feels is a misconception that the public might have.
“I think there is a misconception that Club Madonna wants to get a liquor license so that it can open as an adult club,” Gongora said. “Some people think that it’s not open and operating, but it has been and it is and it’s been a very viable business.”
Gongora said he also had some concerns about Club Madonna patrons strolling back and forth on the streets between stores or drinking establishments and the club.
“I’d like to see Washington Avenue cleaned up a lot, including that area,” Gongora said. “Some concessions about [improving the club exterior and grounds] would be nice, and then, inside, consenting adults can do what they want.”
Still, Gongora wants to see the entire presentation before making up his mind.
“Hey, personally, I ask for people to respect my right to privacy and generally I don’t have a problem with what consenting adults engage in.”
Griffith also said that being permitted to serve alcohol would allow him to hire as many as 10-12 additional staff members. He said Club Madonna already employs 70-80 people.
According to a letter to the city, Griffith foresees “$600,000…in the first year to the City of Miami Beach in increased taxes, increased employment, and increased tourism.”