By TOM TIGANI
Sunday Times Newspapers
LINCOLN PARK — Local ministers say they will put aside protests of the newly opened Larry Flynt Hustler Club for the time being and let God handle things. The Lincoln Park Ministerial Association and the Rev. Daniel Russell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Park, had worked to try to keep it out of the city since its site plan was approved by the Planning Commission in 2006. The group also had mounted prayer protests outside the club before its Dec. 8 opening.
On Oct. 31, group members held a circle of prayer outside the club at 980 John A. Papalas Drive near Outer Drive as the Michigan Liquor Control Commission was considering final approval of its liquor license. The gathering, which drew television crews and other news media was less a protest than a prayer time, Russell said, adding that the group also tried to “prayerfully protest” city officials.
Late last month, association members went to Lansing with letters signed by some 1,000 people asking the LCC not to allow the club to open. The commission approved a liquor license transfer Dec. 1 that enabled the club finally to open last week.
“We’ve certainly been praying for more than two years that it wouldn’t open, and that if it did that the Lord would eventually shut it down,” Russell said, adding that nothing in the way of a formal protest is being planned in the near future.
“We will continue to pray that it closes and we will be there to celebrate when it does,” he said. If officials would have been unanimously against the club, it never would have come to town, Russell said, praising the actions of four City Council members who in October voted to postpone a vote to approve the club’s liquor license. They included former council members Valerie Brady and Michael Myers, who lost their seats in the November election, as well as Councilmen Mariano DiSanto and Thomas Murphy.
“The enemy divided and conquered,” Russell said of the club’s owners, who reached a settlement agreement with city officials in March 2008 that was approved by U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds. Under its terms, the club owners, which at the time owned the adult entertainment-oriented Park Theatre, 1583 Fort St., agreed to close it, while the city agreed to let them buy and develop the current club site.
Edmunds later warned the four that they could have been fined $12,000 a day each for delaying city approval of the liquor license in violation of the agreement.
Russell on Tuesday called City Attorney Edward Zelenak the “point man” in the settlement, which he described as a “back-door, back-room negotiation thing all along.”
The pastor also said, “Of the 15-plus suburbs Downriver, only two have strip clubs: Southgate and Lincoln Park, the two cities where Mr. Zelenak is city attorney.”
Zelenak publicly has likened association members to Elmer Gantry, the flamboyant crusading minister of the 1960s movie with the same name. When told of Russell’s comment Tuesday, Zelenak said it would be “uncharitable to be nasty around Christmas,” but noted that Russell is pastor of a church that has members in both communities.
Zelenak acknowledged the presence of strip clubs in both cities, but said the establishments were there before he began legally representing Lincoln Park or Southgate.
The pastor and the association “missed the big story,” Zelenak said, which is that the settlement agreement with the club’s owners successfully closed the Park, a longtime “porn palace” in the city’s downtown that was home to open prostitution, sex acts and numerous raids by city police.
Russell, who also is the Lincoln Park Police Department’s chaplain, said association members are concerned that the club will result in an increase in crime, the presence of sexual predators, prostitution and drug dealing, creating a potential danger to nearby schools and churches.
Such potential effects on communities can be minimized by creative zoning ordinances for location of strip clubs,
Zelenak said, calling himself a pioneer in that regard. He said communities legally can’t keep them out because of the First Amendment right of free speech, officials can limit possible locations — such as Lincoln Park did in getting the Hustler Club to build in an industrial park area.
And if crime does occur, Zelenak said, “There are lawbreakers everywhere. If it’s there, you prosecute it.”
A draft of one ordinance he worked on still is cited by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as a major case, he said.
In the meantime, Russell said association members haven’t given up their hope to buy the land occupied by the club and use it for a church.
Because of the ordinance he helped write, however, Zelenak said the group had a chance to do that before the club was built — at a price of only about $50,000.
He also questioned Russell’s contention that the club doesn’t meet fire codes and that inspectors and city officials were intimidated by those involved in the settlement.
As a federal judge, Zelenak said, Edmunds never would have allowed anything of the kind to occur, adding that she “went over everything with a fine-tooth comb.”
“Whatever these reverends’ issues are, you have to accept the law as it is,” he said.