How one business owner brought strippers back to Lloydminster
Going to the Poles: the Border City’s ministers are fighting a losing battle against “loose morals.
by Peter Worden
Ranking the rankest industry in Lloydminster is a matter of opinion. To the east is Husky’s heavy oil upgrader; to the west, ADM’s canola processing plant. Diesel, manure and sulphur are familiar odors locals come to ignore. But while scents waft, sentiments hang heavy in the air, and residents are making a stink not about their city’s mix of industries, but about one in particular.
While nude entertainment is commonplace in Alberta’s larger cities – and in a few smaller markets like Camrose and Rocky Mountain House – in Lloydminster, few businesses raise the collective ire as easily as those that involve naked women and dance poles. Originally intended as a utopian settlement built on the principles of sobriety and religious virtue, Lloydminster has disallowed adult entertainment on moral grounds since its conception. In the mid-1990s, one local hotel-bar briefly breached the unwritten rule around nude entertainment, but when the hotel later sold to Best Western, its bar had to lose that revenue stream.
By then, a church collective gathered enough petition signatures and approached city council with the intent of turning tradition into law. In 2002, Lloydminster’s council voted four-to-three in favour of banning “any portion of a live show whereby, genitals, breasts of females and/or entire buttocks areas are exposed.” The so-called “stripper bylaw” forced exotic dancers to wear, at bare minimum, nipple pasties and a G-string, and effectively outlawed nude entertainment in all establishments – at least, it would for a decade.
On a Tuesday night last October, Travis “Cash” Quesnel, the general manager of the Kooler Nightclub, prepared for “new talent Tuesday.” It’s “the best lineup we have ever had,” he advertised on Facebook. With seven dancers from across Canada on the bill, he promised that things would be “hot enough the clothes fall off.” It’s not the first time his bar flirted with breaking the city’s stripper bylaw, in spirit if not in letter. In spite of full nudity being officially outlawed at the time, the Kooler, which opened in 2001, skirted the scope of the bylaw by hosting bikini bull riding, oil wrestling and wet T-shirt contests.
But in May of 2011, Quesnel and business partner Mark “Lurtch” Lindskog decided to take things a step further, hiring Edmonton-based lawyer James Murphy to challenge the validity of the bylaw. Murphy, an expert in governmental procedure, wrote a letter to city council stating that “[the bylaw] encroaches unlawfully into federal jurisdiction over criminal matters, and, in particular, seeks to create a stricter standard for matters already dealt with by the Federal Parliament in section 174 of the Criminal Code.” Murphy wrote that a court challenge would ultimately be successful, and asked city council to reconsider the bylaw before it got to that. They did, and on June 11, 2011, the stripper bylaw was officially repealed.
Later that summer, city council reconvened on the issue, which by this point had taken on a life of its own. A 500-member “Bring strippers back to Lloydminster” Facebook page had formed, while the Kooler’s own website boasted that “Strippers are coming.” On the other side of the debate was the Lloydminster Ministerial Association, which represents local Christian churches. It collected signatures at businesses around town and paid out of pocket for its own nine-page independent legal opinion. When, on August 27, council passed a zoning bylaw limiting nude entertainment to establishments with at least a 300-metre radial buffer from parks, religious assemblies and childcare facilities, the Kooler – which didn’t meet that requirement – was already offering nude shows seven nights a week.
“The Kooler has been a sticking point since it was built,” says Reverend Tim Acey of the ministerial association, which wants to see the city remain “somewhat morally whole.” Acey says a major point of the association’s position that has been “virtually ignored” is the case made by lawyer Dick Haldane, which, contrary to the Kooler and city council’s position, shows businesses can in fact be prohibited on the grounds of morality.
“It’s not the activity so much that goes on behind closed doors, it’s when those people spill out into the community,” he says, citing raucous behaviour around the Kooler at 3 a.m. – shouting, fighting, revving engines – and radio ads he calls “quite blatant.” “People who signed the petition weren’t just church-goers; they were good, morally upright people,” Acey says. “We did not have adult entertainment officially for 10 years. Why, with a one-page challenge from a lawyer in Edmonton, does council cave in without appearing to give it much thought at all?”
Acey says the Lloydminster Charter – a document intended to combine Saskatchewan’s Cities Act and Alberta’s Municipal Government Act solely for the purposes of the Border City – entitles the city to prohibit certain activities on the grounds of morality, but Mayor Jeff Mulligan thinks it’s a bit more complicated than that. “Many people think the charter gives us some special rights other municipalities don’t have,” he says. “[But] it doesn’t say, ‘We’ll give these guys a charter that gives them authorities no other municipality would have.’ Some people interpret it that way and say, ‘Well, you’ve got your own charter, you’re a city-state, you can do whatever you want.’ No.”
In November, a development appeals board panel’s ruling clarified things for everyone. It said that the appellant, Lurch Holdings Ltd. (a.k.a. the Kooler), had its required permit and its proper classification for cabaret entertainment – including nude entertainment – and therefore its pre-existing designation would apply. The Kooler was officially grandfathered. “I think it’s a wake-up call for communities to pay attention to the wording of their zoning-use classifications,” says Brian McCool, chairman of the appeals board. “When you first read it, you sure wouldn’t think that you were approving [a strip club].”
The whole kerfuffle is déjà vu for Violet Groenen, who managed Lloydminster’s Wayside hotel and bar when it had a strip club more than a decade ago. In 2001, Groenen had applied to the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission for the right to hold nude entertainment at her bar, but was turned down because of the city’s pending 2002 bylaw. Today, though, she’s on the other side of the debate. “I don’t think it’s right anymore in all honesty; I don’t believe in lap dancing.” she says. “When we used to run our club, no one was allowed to touch the girls. But I guess if you’re an adult and you’re allowed to go into a place of this sort, that’s your choice. If you don’t like it, don’t go.”
The “don’t like it, don’t go to it” argument, however, doesn’t cut it for Acey, who maintains that nude entertainment at the club is likely to give rise to a major nuisance, that there’s “anecdotal evidence” from other places that prostitution and violence have resulted from strip clubs and that it contributes to a general “sleaze factor.” The options for the ministerial association and its allies are now either to appeal the decision or gather more signatures so a petition can be put to a plebiscite in 2013. During the last election, Acey says, it was the only item to receive applause at an all-candidates forum at Lakeland College.
He thinks it will likely remain a hot election item. “People reckon it’s not going to go away any time soon no matter what the result is.”
Mulligan hopes the “stripper bylaw” won’t define his term as mayor, but knows that it will come up. “People will say, ‘He should have fought harder. We should have spent more money. They should have used the charter,’ ” he says. “But those will all be emotion-based and unresearched positions. It’s an easy decision because legally it’s the only decision.”
Meanwhile, the nightclub’s owners are looking past the criticism from their community and promoting their charitable work. “There isn’t a local sports team or a community not-for-profit event we don’t support,” Lindskog says. He and Quesnel are also onto their next business venture: a half-built bar twice the size of the Kooler and just a stiletto’s throw away. The new building promises a country saloon and a five-star restaurant with a “professionally engineered glass and cultured stone wine room,” to open next summer. As for the Kooler, he says, it’s business as usual. “We want to remain a nightclub, not become just a strip club.”