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Duluth reprieves Saratoga

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The Saratoga
The Saratoga has been a Duluth landmark for decades. The newly passed city ordinace limiting the locations of adult businesses will not have an effect on the strip club.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

You could call it a tale of two strip clubs.

One is the Club Saratoga.  It's been a fixture in Duluth for more than 50 years, most of that time firmly planted in Canal Park.  It opened long before the industrial waterfront transformed itself into a tourist haven.  It's a white stucco building with a glass entrance.  In the doorway, a small neon sign advertises jazz and floor shows.  

Norshor Theater
The historic Norshor Theater stands within an area which the Duluth City Council voted to make off limits to adult businesses.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The other is the NorShor Theatre, the historic downtown movie palace that's been trying to keep afloat with a bar and music acts of all kinds.  The new manager ignited howls of protest last spring when he announced he would offer what he called "classy" live adult entertainment.

Coincidentally, the state legislature passed a restrictive law on adult entertainment last spring.   It says a strip club can't locate within 500 feet of a residence or 2,800 feet of a church or school.  That would knock out both the Saratoga and the NorShor.  But the state law allows cities to adopt their own ordinances, which can be more or less restrictive.

That's what city councilor Russ Stewart did Monday night.  The council unanimously passed the measure he introduced.  It simply subjects live entertainment venues to the same restrictions as the city already placed on adult bookstores.  

Stewart says the idea was pretty uncontroversial.

"Councilors didn't throw up any roadblocks. The community didn't fly into an outrage," he says.  "I think that people saw this response as reasonable and measured and appropriate under the circumstances." 

In contrast to the state law, the city ordinance keeps adult establishments away from residential zones, not just residences.  And they can be much closer to a church, school, or park than the state law would allow.  

"It is unconstitutional in addition to having been unlawfully enacted."

It even threw in a grandfather clause for the Club Saratoga, saying any adult establishment that had been in continuous operation for more than a year on the same location can continue to operate.

That means the Saratoga can go on offering strip shows.  But the NorShor Theatre would be too close to a pedestrian plaza and couldn't become a strip club.

But the NorShor's attorney, Randall Tigue says to wait a minute.  

"It is clearly a zoning ordinance," he says.

If it's a zoning ordinance, Tigue says the city didn't follow the proper procedure.

"They have to refer it to a planning commission for a report and recommendation. There must be public notices and public hearings before the planning commission," he says.  "The city of Duluth followed none of those steps and so the adoption of the ordinance is clearly illegal." 

Tigue also says the measure licenses "protected first amendment activity," and on that basis it also didn't follow the proper procedures mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"So, it is unconstitutional in addition to having been unlawfully enacted." 

Tigue says he'll be filing a lawsuit in the next few days, and asking the court to prevent the city from enforcing the ordinance.

Duluth's city attorney drafted the ordinance.  He says he doesn't agree with Randall Tigue that the measure is a zoning ordinance, but he's not surprised Tigue is challenging it.  Tigue is a well known first amendment lawyer who says he'll be challenging the new state law at the same time.  

Meanwhile, the story literally took another twist Monday night.   Duluth police issued a citation during a contortionist show at the NorShor.  It was the first night the theatre reopened after being closed for renovations to meet fire code.  

When contacted, a police spokesman said he couldn't comment on the citation, because he hadn't yet talked to the people involved.  Press reports quote the NorShor manager as saying the contortionist was fully clothed.