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Bikini bar's opening is legally hazy

Inside Showgirls, the new bikini bar on State Road 60, lingerie-clad women undulate against poles. In the back, booths await customers paying for private dances.

After months of battling with Hillsborough County authorities, club owners Gemini Property Ventures stopped waiting for a magistrate's decision to allow them to occupy the building, and quietly opened anyway on Friday.

"It's been a long time coming," said club manager Scott Lang, standing outside the one-story, cream-stucco building.

"We've been violated long enough, and it feels good to finally be able to do what Americans are supposed to be able to do, and that's to open a legal business in America."

But it's not entirely clear whether Showgirls is open legally.

In the spring, county planners initially approved the bikini bar. But neighbors and church groups protested against the club, and county officials rescinded the decision, citing a lack of parking.

In November, Gemini Properties and its lawyer, Luke Lirot, sought an injunction against the county, saying the County Commission and Commissioner Ronda Storms in particular had singled the club out for unfair treatment.

They argued that their constitutional rights were being violated.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Scriven heard the case, and said in January that she intended to rule in Gemini's favor.

On Friday, Lirot notified the court that he considered that statement as an "oral pronouncement" granting Gemini the injunction to open.

County lawyers shot back a motion to dismiss the case. Louise B. Fields, the county's attorney in the matter, said Magistrate Scriven's January statement did not constitute a legal decision.

"We're waiting for the judge to rule," she said, "but apparently Gemini has decided to take matters into their own hands and open."

Gemini's move will be rendered legal or illegal by the magistrate's eventual decision, she said. Till then, she said, the club operates in legal limbo.

"I think they're being pretty bold," she said. "They're taking a risk."

Gemini's manager, Jamie Rand, however, seemed certain of victory.

"They can't close me down," he said on Friday. "They'd have to change the Constitution of the United States."

Notably absent from opening night were the scores of neighbors who had turned out to picket the club nearly every weekend over the summer.

Terry Kemple, an organizer of those protests, said he decided not to hold a rally against Showgirls' opening. "We don't want to do anything that would give them publicity," he said.

He added that his group, Community Action Summit, was considering such tactics as photographing the license plates in the club's parking lot and either posting the pictures online or else sending letters to the cars' owners.

Kemple wasn't the only one concerned about the effect the bikini bar will have on the neighborhood. Parents at a nearby gymnastics school were upset to hear Showgirls was open.

"I don't think it should be so close to all this," said Kevin Fales, 42, of Plant City, as he picked up his kids from practice.

Other parents are more sanguine about the club.

Debbie Crowley, 50, of Winter Haven, had dropped off her daughter at her first night on her new job: working reception at Showgirls.

Her daughter has worked for Rand for years, initially as a dancer at his Plant City club, also called Showgirls, Crowley said.

"When she first got the job, she had me and her father both come out to watch her, to see how it was, how safe it is," Crowley said.

Crowley said she was impressed with how the club was run.

"It's like they're a big family," she said. "They all take care of each other, they all look out for each other, and the girls are really safe in there."

She added, "If it was a totally nude club that would be a different story. But you don't see any more in there than you would see at the beach."

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com.

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