HOLIDAY — A few weeks ago, Paul Swikey had to lay off 30 employees. The decision ate at him, especially with the holidays coming up. So he launched a Christmas fundraising drive to collect school supplies, clothes and diapers for the children of those displaced workers:
Last year, Swikey opened Private Rendezvous, a bikini bar on U.S. 19, just north of the Pasco-Pinellas county line. The club employed a couple dozen women until, Swikey said, county regulations forced him to shut down the dancing.
"I feel like I let these girls down," said Swikey, 55, noting many of the dancers are single mothers. "They believed in me."
But officials said the business, which is now just called Rendezvous, was more of a strip club — with private lap dances and touching — than a business with dancing women in beachwear. County ordinances say new strip clubs can only open in industrial parks, not commercial storefronts on U.S. 19.
Still, the county says Swikey wasn't forced to fire anyone.
"It's supposedly a bikini bar," said Pasco Zoning administrator Debra Zampetti. "Which can be okay if it's done right."
That means the women would be clothed and there would be no private rooms where dancers and customers retreated together.
During an investigation, though, zoning officials said they found dancers occasionally "weren't wearing their tops." Zampetti added that "there was a little bit of touching going on between patrons and employees," which Swikey disputed.
Zampetti said Swikey has been cooperative, agreeing to dismantle the private booths and to "basically clean up the act a little bit."
Swikey said he removed the Playboy magazines and other sexual images of women. He said he could put full bottoms on the dancers, instead of having them wear thongs. But he said he drew the line at getting rid of the private VIP rooms because that is where the dancers made most of their money. Some men wanted lap dances. Swikey said most just wanted comfort.
"I had an older guy who lost his wife. He would come in and sit and hold the girl's hand," Swikey said. "He just wanted someone to listen to him."
Without the VIP booths, the dancers wouldn't make enough money and the customers would go elsewhere, Swikey said. So he shut it down. He said he kept three dancers who have to stay on the stage, but customers won't pay for just that.
"I am heartbroken," said Carrie Posey, a 30-year-old divorcee and mother of three children who is one of the laid-off dancers. She hasn't found a new job. She said she and her children are now basically homeless, bouncing from couch to couch. Posey said she began dancing as a way to pay for school. She said she is studying history at Pasco-Hernando Community College. She hopes to be a museum docent.
"Most people look at entertainers as crackheads. We are swept under the rug," she said. "But most of us are in school and have children.
"We have been shunned by our husbands and the rest of the world, and we have nowhere else to go."
Swikey is trying to change Rendezvous into a regular bar with karaoke, salsa dancing and $10 all-you-can-drink nights. He said he's lost so much money after shutting down the dancing that he isn't sure if the business will survive.
In the meantime, though, customers are chipping in to the "Kids for Christmas" campaign. Some have donated pencils, pens and writing notebooks for the children of the women who used to work there.
"I'm just trying to help these girls out," Swikey said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.