By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
Only the blind fail to notice the sun’s glint off the rearing, silvery stallion – a virile invitation into Lowndes’ Counties only strip club.
Advertised as a topless club, The Pony offers beer, light wine and sexy dancing just south of West Point alongside busy U.S. Highway 45 Alternate.
It’s strategically located near the east-west corridor that links the frolicking student life in Starkville and the more spartan military regime at Columbus Air Force Base.
It’s also a continued subject of questions by passersby and people connected with the surrounding area.
“Whenever I go to West Point, people would say, ‘Gary, can’t we do something about that?’” says state Rep. Gary Chism of Columbus, in whose district The Pony prances.
Chism’s questioners are talking about the studly statue “in all his glory,” he says, but they also are asking about the presence of what many consider a social or moral embarrassment.
Recently, a few high school football recruits claimed a naughty evening at the night club in the company of Mississippi State University athletes. Later, they denied the trip, saying the posted their claim on the Internet as “a joke.”
Still, MSU officials moved swiftly with an internal investigation.
The club is located in Lowndes County’s District 5, represented by Leroy Brooks. He says authorities walk a fine line when they consider regulating the adult entertainment business.
His chief concerns, he admits, are whether youth are getting in and if the facilities are substandard.
To answer those concerns, he says he went there one Friday night looking at construction quality and security.
“To that extent, I was satisfied,” said the 26-year-supervisor.
Law enforcement officials say they have few problems reported from The Pony.
Mississippi law allows county boards of supervisors to adopt and enforce ordinances related to massage parlors and public displays of nudity in:
– Harrison County on the Gulf Coast.
– Any county touching a county, in either Mississippi or another state, that has a city of more than 200,000 people.
Even before the stallion’s prance and the recruiting prank, Chism says he became concerned that supervisors in other counties are powerless to regulate strip clubs without special zoning, which in Mississippi can be synonymous with political suicide.
This legislative term, he introduced House Bill 170, to give them that authority. On Jan. 27, the bill passed the House 113-3. March 2 is the deadline for a decision in the Senate’s County Affairs Committee, chaired by Nickey Browning of Ecru.
“I think we would be better off not having that kind of business in the area,” Chism said recently.
But he’s also sensitive to the rights such businesses have to operate where they are not strictly prohibited.
Last week, Browning said he hasn’t heard any public support for the bill but will take a look at it. “I’m not crazy to take this up unless it’s something they want,” he said, referring primarily to the Mississippi Association of Supervisors.
In north Mississippi, the only other known strip club is Wild Bill’s Cabaret, also called Cherries, on U.S. Highway 72 in Corinth, a half mile east of the Highway 45 bypass inside the city limits. It advertises itself as the “lingerie” type with stage and lap dances by women in bikinis.
Bill Odom, the city attorney, said Corinth and Alcorn County governments do not have specific ordinances regulating the nightclub, which preceded establishment of beer and light wine regulations and zoning ordinances.
But today’s Corinth zoning ordinances require such a new club or other adult entertainment businesses to be located in areas zoned I-2 or a “heavy industrial” district.
The city’s beer and light wines ordinance also prohibits club license holders from sales between midnight and 7 a.m. or on Sundays. Also prohibited for licensed premises are lewd acts and nudity.
Lee County passed an ordinance related to adult entertainment businesses in 1998. It requires annual licensing and inspection of such businesses and prohibits specific sexual behavior on the premises and private rooms or cubicles for adult entertainment.
It does not, however, appear to restrict nudity.
County Administrator Bill Benson said no such businesses are licensed in Lee County.
Tupelo reports similar regulations and the city permit office says none is licensed here, either. If it were, it would be in zones designated “light industrial.”
The Pony has had almost as many lives as a cat.
Its origins spring decades ago from thirsty customers in alcohol-dry Oktibbeha and Clay counties, both adjacent to wet Lowndes.
Among some of its most famous business peers were The Crossroads and Echols, as well as others in Columbus catering to the Air Force and MSU males who cruised Highway 82 on their way to eager female students at then-Mississippi State College for Women.
In later years, a few other college-crowd clubs sprang up along 45-A, including The Landing and Lenlew’s, where The Pony shines now. But some of the luster was lost when Starkville, West Point and Clay County legalized beer sales.
The bar’s prospects were going to need more than cold beverages, it seemed, and along came James Hunt with the strip club, Dewerks Larey. After his death, his daughters sold it for $310,000 to Mississippi Adult Properties LLC, managed by 44-year-old Charles G. Westlund Jr., who used the West Point address of his attorney Mark A. Cliett on his July 2008 incorporation papers.
Cliett also helped incorporate MEC Inc., for which Westlund is listed as president, vice president, secretary and treasurer. The club’s beer and light wine privilege license is issued in this company’s name.
Calls and e-mails to Cliett, who is the appointed city judge, went unanswered with requests to contact Westlund for comment about the club.
State documents also show Cliett as the registered agent and incorporator of a company named The Landing O TBB Inc., which was dissolved in 2002.
Clay County Sheriff Laddie Huffman did not respond to Daily Journal inquiries about his office’s experience with The Pony.
While Lowndes County Sheriff C.B. “Butch” Howard and Oktibbeha County Sheriff Dolph Bryan say they’ve seen few problems coming from the club, Westlund is no stranger to trouble.
Published reports show that in 1998 when he lived in California, he was found guilty on felony state income tax evasion and forgery charges. That’s when he was a consultant for various political action committees related to the gaming industry.
He was sentenced to probation, and the convictions were dismissed four years later.
However, the California judge who dismissed the charges required Westlund to disclose his convictions when applying for a state permit or license or when applying for a job with the California lottery.
Earlier, he was indicted on suspicion of embezzlement but the indictment was dismissed, Gambling Magazine reported.
In Lubbock, Texas, in 2006, he fought the city for a sexually oriented business license, which he was denied at least twice because he failed to disclose his felony convictions.
Howard says The Pony’s on-premises troubles, if any, pale in comparison to former days when underage drinking was a problem compounded by gang activities, shootings and brawls.
“Under the current management, it’s fairly well behaved,” Howard observes. Most of his complaint calls these days are about disputes between patrons.
“I don’t see where it enhances the community,” the sheriff said, “but it’s not as much trouble” as in years gone by.
It’s difficult to know exactly how many strip clubs are in Mississippi, although one Internet locator site says they can be found in Biloxi, Jackson, Meridian, Starkville (The Pony), Vaiden, Port Gibson, Pleasant Hill and Woodville.
Zoning ordinances in Hinds and Harrison County covered what’s allowed and where for Jackson and Biloxi.
Daily Journal calls and e-mails to board attorneys in the other towns and counties were not returned.
Lowndes County supervisors’ attorney Tim Hudson of Columbus said his board tried to establish some adult-entertainment ordinances about eight years ago, when The Pony was Dewerks Larey, but a court struck them down, specifically because it said they couldn’t target just one kind of businesses.
If Lowndes had had a comprehensive zoning plan, it might have turned out differently, he admits, but that “zoning” subject just doesn’t fly with rural voters.
“Basically, we were just seeking to make them run orderly,” he said last week.
Most striking in the plan was a ban on the sale, use or consumption of alcoholic beverages at sexually oriented businesses.
The proposal also would have required licenses for operators and employees, on-site inspections, nudity guidelines and limited operating hours. It also would have established regulations for sexually explicit films and videos, escort agencies, nude model studios and so-called “adult motels” based on daily occupancy turnover rates.
As for The Pony, Leroy Brooks doesn’t anticipate any legal changes from the Lowndes Board of Supervisors.
Brooks draws a parallel with people who oppose the consumption of alcohol.
“I don’t drink whiskey,” Brooks said, “but I’m not trying to shut down the liquor stores.”
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or email@example.com.
A night at The Pony
NEMS Daily Journal
MAYHEW – When patrons enter The Pony, a large banner hanging across the room welcomes them to the “ultimate strip club.”
On a recent weeknight, The Pony turned out to be a stereotypical topless bar where scantily clad young women entice customers to pay them for personal dances.
About 50 people were in the club about 11 p.m. A majority of them appeared to be college-age men. Four women were in the audience.
Backed against a wall on the west side of the club is the stage, complete with a 10-foot tall brass pole in the middle. At least a dozen dancers, wearing lingerie or string bikinis in the club, each took a turn on the stage.
They danced to booming music varying between hard rock, rap, country and pop. The dancer usually had removed her top by the song’s first minute.
When a person pays the $10 cover charge or for a $4 beer with a large bill like a $20, change is given in $1 bills. It makes it easier for them to tip a stripper on stage or a fully clothed waitress serving drinks.
One 30ish-looking male stood at the edge of the stage and casually flipped dollar bills every few seconds toward the dancer.
Dances for sale
When they weren’t performing on the stage, the dancers worked the crowd. With lines like “You ready for a dance, baby” or “You want me to dance for you,” the dancers politely ask customers if they want a lap dance for $40 in the general club area or join in them in a secluded “VIP” room for a $65 dance.
Dancers, however, know when it’s time to move on to someone else when a patron gives them the cold shoulder or is simply isn’t interested in a dance. (This reporter refused eight dance offers that evening).
Inside and out
The bar on the club’s north end has a sports feel to it. Flags or banners representing eight Southeastern Conference schools hang from the wall and ceiling. ESPN was showing on the seven TVs scattered throughout the club.
The decor also includes two motorcycles hanging from the ceiling and a wall, four enlarged red lips affixed on the walls and a painting of a topless woman with long brown hair. The painting hangs above the ATM machine.
A scan of the auto tags in the parking lot revealed where patrons or club workers reside. Represented were Mississippi counties Lee, Clay, Oktibbeha, Lowndes, Calhoun, Monroe, Rankin and Attala. Tags also showed visitors from Alabama and Tennessee.
Memphis battles over club control
Patsy R. Brumfield
NEMS Daily Journal
Lowndes County’s The Pony apparently is connected with a larger establishment in Memphis near the airport.
That’s where the Mississippi club’s prancing stallion came from, reportedly after its size exceeded Memphis sign ordinances.
In Memphis’ Shelby County, a nearly three-year legal battle rages over how much control the Board of Commissioners can exercise over numerous strip clubs there.
Commissioner Mike Ritz says the proposed ordinance would stop alcohol sales and consumption in the clubs and require all entertainers, employees and owners to be subjected to background checks before gaining work licenses.
“It won’t get rid of them,” he said recently, “but it will completely change how they operate.”
He expects the ordinance to win final U.S. appeals court approval soon with the new rules to take effect by year’s end. Memphis clubs also will be affected.
The ordinance is based on a 1998 Tennessee law, which passed court muster, to allow counties to put local restrictions in place.
Ritz said the push for tighter regulation on the local strip clubs came after undercover stings discovered live sex shows between dancers and easy-to-buy illegal drugs at some of the clubs.
Shelby County’s approach to regulating the businesses got a legal boost Tuesday when the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that a Fulton County, Ga., ordinance barring alcohol at strip clubs is a “reasonable” infringement on club owners’ free speech.
“This is not an insignificant political issue,” Ritz noted, saying the Memphis-Shelby clubs have a history of making large campaign contributions to favored candidates.
He also cautioned communities interested in seeking greater controls on their local clubs to be careful in choosing who develops the regulations.
“They can deliberately screw this up” and jeopardize judicial reviews, he said.