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Bikini bar raid in St. Pete not a trend, police say

Police line up women during a raid last weekend at Bottom to the Top, at 1101 First Ave. N. Not all of the dancers shown were arrested.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Police line up women during a raid last weekend at Bottom to the Top, at 1101 First Ave. N. Not all of the dancers shown were arrested.

ST. PETERSBURG — The pole in the middle of the dance stage at Club Sinn stood empty for most of last Tuesday.

There wasn't much of an audience to mind. By midnight, just one patron was left at the 304 First Ave. N bikini club.

Sandra Bogden, a 40-year-old dancer and bartender at the club, said she thinks people are too scared to stop in because of last weekend's raid at a competing club, Bottom to the Top, at 1101 First Ave. N.

Police raided the club after a series of tips alleging prostitution, illegal drug use and indecent exposure. Twelve people were arrested, including six dancers accused of exposing themselves, one dancer accused of obstruction, three managers, a DJ and a patron.

Bogden, who dances at Club Sinn three nights a week, said she has never seen any wrongdoing there. "Some of these places are crossing the line," she said. "We are a clean environment."

Police say last weekend's raid was not the start of a crackdown on bikini bars, which are popular elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area but are relatively new to St. Petersburg.

Council members say they aren't big fans of the clubs but realize that not much can be done if they're following the law.

The city has no strip clubs, largely because of strict zoning rules that prevent them from opening within 400 feet of churches, schools or day care centers. Bikini bars don't face those restrictions as long as dancers don't expose their private areas.

"It's very clear there's no constitutional right to limit people dancing," council member Karl Nurse said.

He said he thinks the proliferation of bikini bars is partly caused by the recession and struggling bar owners looking for ways to lure customers. He thinks the trend is a fad that will be gone in months.

The city is limited in the ordinances it can enact to further regulate the bars, and council members said they don't have any plans for putting any new laws on the books.

"Drugs are illegal, prostitution's illegal, exposing yourself is illegal," council member Wengay Newton said. "We've got laws in place that we can fight this with."

At least one other Tampa Bay government has made efforts to regulate bikini-clad dancers.

In 2006, Hillsborough County passed an ordinance prohibiting bikini dancers from making physical contact with other dancers or patrons. The intent was to protect the health and safety of both workers and patrons, said Adam Gormly, a managing attorney in the Hillsborough County Attorney's Office.

Hillsborough's ordinance was challenged but was upheld by the 11th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2008 and is still on the books.

Police don't have any further enforcement efforts planned at bikini bars, short of responding to tips and complaints as usual, said St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt.

On Tuesday, two police officers entered Club Sinn about 11 p.m. for a compliance check on the club's licenses.

"Whatcha need?" Bogden asked. "I'm not exposing my breasts!"

They left about 10 minutes later, after walking through the club and verifying the bar's liquor license.

The Bottom to the Top raid shouldn't be seen as part of "any big conspiracy to crack down on bikini bars," council member Steve Kornell said.

"It was a crackdown on drugs. It was a crackdown on illegal exposure. It was a crackdown on things that are illegal."

Sara Gregory can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or sgregory@sptimes.com.

Bikini bar raid in St. Pete not a trend, police say 06/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 4:39pm]
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