by Rex Breathes

Hypocrisy, lies, deception, manipulation, stacking the deck, legal blackmail, prejudice, slander, and spying... sounds like a daytime soap opera, but it's not. Welcome to the world of "business as usual" for the OLCC the God Almighty agency that grants or denies every alcohol license in the state of Oregon. I wouldn't have believed it myself no big fan of intrusive government regulation if I didn't get it all on tape and in a 142-page ruling handed down by an OLCC judge. How can a state agency answering to no one, which has the power of the Attorney General, all state law enforcement and city councils at its beck and call, be held accountable to its own rules and regulations? It can't. Unless you have pockets as deep as Crater Lake and/or the patience of a saint married to the will of a heavyweight boxer fighting 15 championship rounds.

This is the story of two demonized strip clubs Club Coco II and Stars Cabaret who fought the law and, miracle, the law did not win. Not yet. Because, with the OLCC, you never know if you are in the early or the late rounds of the first fight or the rematch. They control the horizontal and the vertical; they can make the picture soft and fuzzy or broadcast with crystal clarity. For the next few minutes, sit back and relax (with one eye on your favorite dancer) as we step into the outer limits of state regulatory agencies.

Stanley Sykes is an extremely likeable, well educated, articulate, and mannered former management level bank employee. He's also African-American. And he wanted to open a strip club. Hearing Stanley's long and winding tale about procuring his alcohol license, it's a wonder that he's not in therapy for post acute stress disorder. He started out his quest for the Holy Grail by purchasing a nightclub in the whiter than white and holier than thou Hollywood District of Portland so named for its 1930's movie theater, boasting an art deco facade three stories high. Stanley arrived for a pre-neighborhood association meeting to get their approval for his Club Coco and was told that three or four representatives would be in attendance. "And I showed up with my brother, who has a law degree, and the manager of the club, and we're all minorities," he recounted. "And we walked into a room with over 25 people there... and we're still the only minorities there!" he laughed.

"Throughout the meeting, they just sat on their hands," he continued. "And I gave them a business plan with over 30 concessions... So, I get a call a week later from a friend who says there's these ladies passing out flyers on street corners saying, essentially,

'Please come to this neighborhood meeting so we can stamp out this strip club and their owner, Stanley Sykes...' Basically, just trying to make me look like this monster." But they had been nice as warm pie face-to-face, in that getting-to-know-you meeting.

Then the dominoes started to fall. KATU-TV called Sykes and wanted an interview because investors for the Hollywood Theater renovation had declared that they would back out if his strip club did not get out of Dodge, pronto. "I declined to go on camera," Sykes said. "They (KATU-TV) ran a one-sided story without me -- she (the producer) refused to interview me unless I was on camera."

The day after the news bite aired, the fire inspector came to Stanley's club, wanting to cite him for faulty wiring. Of course, Stanley was merely a tenant within a run-down building where the property owner couldn't care less about upkeep and maintenance. Viola! The next day the building burned down. No more Club Coco. Big surprise: faulty wiring was the fire inspector's ruling for causation. Now Stanley had the black soot of that fire, which damaged the adjacent, historical landmark theater, on his strip club owner face. Fire inspectors determined that the blaze had begun in a tiny, separate business office with an overloaded outlet directly behind Club Coco. But hysteria fanned the flame that somehow, some way, Stanley's evil strip club was to blame.

Even though Stanley no longer had a club, the city council held their license hearing for Club Coco, anyway. Stanley caught the perverse proceedings on cable. "And they (council members) were just dogging me, saying, 'He can't even bother to show up,' and there's no reason for me to be there or for them to hold the hearing, because the place has burned down," Stanley animated. The icing on the council's vindictive cake was when it said, "In the future, maybe we won't have to wait for a fire to do our work for us," according to Stanley.

So, Stanley went out and searched high and low for a location that would not raise the wrath of neighborhood associations or city council. And he did. A measly five people wrote letters of complaint when he applied for an alcohol license for Club Coco II, located in an industrial neighborhood at the foot of the Ross Island Bridge. And Stanley still had to wait for city council approval and for the OLCC to do another background check on him, even though it had just completed one six months ago.

"I think they did everything they could to draw out the process, hoping my resources would dry up," he said. "I don't think it would have gone to the city if I had been a sports bar or something," he added; noting that the miniscule complaints could have been expedited through OLCC guidelines to contact complainants and reach resolution first, go to the council second. And the OLCC denied him the usual 90 day temporary permit while his license was going through the lengthy review.

"I hope it (delays) was just because of the nature of the business and no one has the guts to stand up and say, 'he has the legal right to open,' and not any other factors," Stanley wisened. In other words, he feels it's very difficult for an African-American to obtain an alcohol license in Portland. "I hate to think that anything is racially motivated. I don't like to go that route," Stanley carefully opened Pandora's box. "I think I know of maybe four or five (African-American alcohol license holders) in the city of Portland. And I've lived here all my life," he remarked. Skipping over himself, he said, "I don't think there's any African-American owners in this industry (nude dancing clubs) in the city, in this entire state... I have people drawing swastikas and other racial comments on my doors and windows," he opened the box further and let out its ugly head.

So Stanley Sykes, affable, sharp, former bank worker, got his victory last month when the Portland City Council voted four aye and one nay to the OLCC granting his liquor license. But not without a parade of emotional, knee-jerk reactionary grandstanding, as if council members voted yes over their dead bodies. Listen to Commissioner Jim Francesconi, quoted in The Oregonian, saying to Sykes, "... I don't know why in this economy, you've chosen this as a business... I would hope as you develop your business skills, you employ them in other areas besides exploiting women for profit." If that isn't a condescending, patronizing, couched in rhetoric racial slur -- the black man as pimp -- then I've got beachfront property for sale in Arizona. Furthermore, the city council recommended to the OLCC that Sykes only receive a beer and wine permit and its yes vote is contingent upon that. Sykes states that its limited recommendation goes completely outside its boundaries: the city council simply approves or denies, but does not determine the type of license.

But the strangest twist of irony is: while being forced to operate as a juice bar establishment, Club Coco II was attracting Asian and skinhead gangs, because gang members tend to be below the drinking age. According to Sykes, operating without an alcohol permit (allowing the ideal gang age of 18 to 21 to hand out there) was far more dangerous. Apparently, reason somehow prevailed with the City of Portland police when they supported Syke's license application.

Over the dead bodies of the city council members superior moral outrage and the racist graffiti scrawled on his club, Sykes will open a place "where African-Americans can feel comfortable going there... Where someone will see people of color working there and they're not going to be treated the way I feel like I have been treated at some of the adult businesses that I've gone to," Stanley philosophized. So Stanley Sykes has a dream. And he has a Constitutional right. Neither one may sit well with our all white city council, but hey, last time I checked it was far more dangerous to be downtown on the bus mall after 10pm than in any place where, Oh My God!, you might see a nude dancer and drink a beer!

Next month: Stars Cabaret in Beaverton -- $300,000; hundreds of police visits; dozens of spy missions and a few legal blackmails later -- wins its first round with the OLCC. You'll have to read it to believe it. This is the outer limits of state regulatory agencies signing off for now.

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