December 10, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
Hartford has an image issue.
For those trying to sell it, the city is all about New England charm, wholesome family outings, high culture, good food and vibrant neighborhoods.
But, partly because of zoning regulations designed to isolate the city's virtue from its vice, Hartford's highways sell a different, sexier scene.
Drivers coming in from the north on I-91 first see the city's skyline, then its panty line - with the easily visible Gold Club cabaret and Luv Boutique just off to the right. Visitors from the south don't have to travel far to Very Intimate Pleasures, an easy-off, easy-on at Exit 27, for sex toys and other paraphernalia. From either direction, big billboards sell the city's sex industry.
If a pair of Connecticut businessmen have their way, there will be even more to sell.
Proposals to open two new venues - another cabaret in the north and another retail store in the south - have sparked discussions about just how much of the sex industry is too much in a city trying to remake itself and remarket its image.
"We want to be known as a destination for that convention center, and we want people to come here and visit and enjoy the heritage and cultural richness that the city has, including its diversity in its neighborhoods," said Mayor Eddie A. Perez in a recent interview. "Adult entertainment does nothing for any of those kinds of strategies."
The fact that these businesses are so visible from one of the city's major arteries shouldn't come as a surprise; it's a situation the city itself created when it wrote zoning regulations that allow sex-oriented entertainment venues only in parts of the city largely segregated from the city's residents - the North and South Meadows.
Michelle Freridge, head of the Free Speech Coalition, an industry trade group based in California, said a better solution than political and public outrage about the location of such businesses would be to allow them to exist elsewhere in the city, she said.
"They don't want to be harassed and picketed and prosecuted, they want to run a business and make some money," she said. "They need to be treated like businesses and the solution needs to be discussed with them and it needs to be more of a win-win."
A Lucrative Industry
The sex industry isn't only growing in Hartford.
Nationally, it brought in $12.6 billion in 2005, up from the industry's take in 1997 of between $10 billion and $11 billion, according to the Free Speech Coalition.
Within that universe, strip clubs were a $2 billion annual business in 2005, with a "gentlemen's club" in a major metropolitan area estimated to bring in between $10 million and $20 million a year in gross revenue. Retail stores that sell novelty items, videos and magazines make up more than half the industry's revenue.
But while there is money to be made, the industry is facing challenges - both public and political.
Freridge said that the industry as a whole saw significant growth until some time in 2005 when the sale of DVDs and Web-based content slowed.
"There have been several laws that have been passed recently that make it much harder for the industry to do business," she said. "The cost of doing business has increased, and the legal risks of doing business have increased. As a result, a lot of people have gotten out of the industry."
In Berlin, an ordinance that restricts the location of sexually oriented businesses is at the center of a federal lawsuit brought by the would-be owner of a proposed Very Intimate Pleasures store. The owner argues that the town's ordinance - which prohibits the businesses from operating within 250 feet of residential property - is unconstitutional.
In Manchester, the opening of another Very Intimate Pleasures this year brought significant public grief.
And in Hartford, the two men who are seeking to expand the industry have run into some obstacles of their own.
Daniel Quinn and Joseph Sullo are working to open a strip club at 275 Weston St. in the North Meadows. The proposal has generated community opposition and was withdrawn, but remains the subject of a federal lawsuit that contends the city's rules unfairly limits free speech.
Sullo has also filed an application with the city to open a new "adult use" facility with "books, videos, clothing, and adult models" at 90 Murphy Road in the South Meadows. It is awaiting city review.
The two men have other substantial investments in the sex-oriented entertainment business.
Quinn, who has been described as an "adult industry pioneer," owns the Penthouse Boutique in Milford and the Luv Boutique in Hartford.
Quinn is also partner in the corporation that own the properties where the Erotic Zone is located in the North Meadows, according to public records. Together, Sullo and Quinn are partners in companies that have official business addresses at two Kahoots strip clubs - one in East Hartford, the other in Vernon.
When his Hartford store opened last year, Quinn, in a press release, boasted of his achievement. "I proudly give Hartford - New England's rising star, the greatest erotic department store in the world," he said.
But while the image of Hartford from the highway may not be ideal, some in the convention business say it doesn't really hurt the bottom line.
H. Scott Phelps, the head of the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau, says the city's sex-oriented entertainment industry is sort of a nonissue.
"Hartford does not have a national image of the erotic capital," Phelps said.
And Michael Kintner, head of the soon-to-be-phased-out Hartford Image Project, says the sex shop phenomenon is not Hartford's problem alone. Sex billboards hit you in the face in New Haven, too, he said.
"Things you can't control are going to affect image," Kintner said, from sex signs to crime reports. Unless you ban billboards entirely, he said, there's not much to be done.
But Kenneth R. Kahn, an influential voice in the city's marketing strategy and the head of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, says that while stores shouldn't be banned and billboards can't be forcibly removed, a little cooperation would be nice.
"Everybody in the world has a different sense of what is fun, so you need to be careful about trying to eliminate all these things," Kahn said. "But we're talking about exercising a modicum of good taste and restraint."
Close To Home
The proposed North Meadows "adult cabaret" isn't just an image issue; it's a zoning issue.
The city's zoning code only allows such establishments in specific zones that effectively amount to the North and South Meadows, officials said. Once there, establishments can't be within 1,000 feet of homes, schools, religious facilities, public parks or other similar establishments. The Luv Boutique and the Gold Club are exempt, as they predate the city's ordinance.
Because the planned site is less than 1,000 feet from a small residential neighborhood on the Windsor line, the cabaret has stalled.
Sullo and Quinn first tried to get a zoning variance and failed. They then tried to have the city amend its zoning regulations to allow the facility, but withdrew the request in late November after it faced significant public and political opposition.
Yvon Alexandre champions economic development in the North End that he likes to call "Uptown." He, along with the area's Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, is working to improve the Main Street streetscape, encourage property owners to fix code violations, construct gateways at the Windsor Line and at Terry Square, and put up more than 60 banners that welcome visitors.
"We've been spending a lot of money, a lot of time to really change the whole image of the North End," he said. "We don't particularly want that side of Hartford to be considered the adult entertainment district."
Now that the application to change the city's zoning regulations has been withdrawn, one of the attorneys for Sullo and Quinn - former city manager Saundra Kee Borges - says she doesn't know whether the men will pursue the site.
But they are continuing their pursuit of a federal lawsuit against the city, arguing that the zoning regulations abridge their constitutional right to free speech.
"I respect the city's position, to be honest with you, I really do, and I'm willing to work with the city in any way I can," Quinn said. "We're going to ask the judges in federal court to have our location approved."
Free speech has long been a rallying cry for an industry that often finds itself under attack. The industry has fought the regulation of cabaret locations, arguing that nude dancing is a form of expression and is therefore protected by the constitution.
Daniel Silver, another attorney for Quinn and Sullo, says his argument is a little more nuanced. It rests on the premise that the city's zoning regulations would only be acceptable if they could demonstrate that the entertainment establishments had "secondary effects" that would make keeping them away from homes, schools, religious sites and public parks a necessity.
"There is no evidence that the existing businesses in Hartford have ever caused secondary effects," Silver said. "The problems are not the adult clubs. The problems are the non-adult clubs in Hartford."
"We are in a proper zone, we are zoned exactly where the city of Hartford wanted [sex-oriented establishments]," Silver said. "The city does not have the ability to zone out all adult establishments."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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