LINCOLN — The State Legislature may have a surprise for the operator of a new strip club in central Omaha and others operating private “bottle clubs” in the state.
A little-discussed provision of a bill making its way through the Legislature would require state licensing of private bottle clubs.
That would allow the state, based on recommendations by a city council or county board, to deny licenses to bottle clubs that offer entertainment such as nude dancing.
That could take the shake and shimmy out of Club Omaha, a strip club that opened last month near 72nd and Dodge Streets that allows members to bring their own alcohol.
“I felt it was time that the state have reasonable oversight,” said State Sen. Tyson Larson, the sponsor of Legislative Bill 632.
Lincoln businessman Shane Harrington, who opened Club Omaha and operates three other bottle clubs that feature nude dancers across the state, said he was not aware of the legislative effort but was not surprised.
“They (Nebraska Liquor Control Commission) don’t like anything they can’t control,” Harrington said. “But we have a backup plan. And a plan after that.”
The legislative proposal comes after months of frustrated attempts by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission and by municipalities to prevent Harrington from opening bottle clubs in their communities. City of Omaha officials have said they were powerless to stop Club Omaha from opening.
That would change if LB 632 passes.
Hobert Rupe, executive director of the liquor commission, said the commission had asked, in its annual wish list of state statute changes, for lawmakers to clarify that the agency had the right to regulate private bottle clubs.
Rupe said a “loophole” in state law was created in 2004 when, as part of a rewrite of state statutes, a clause requiring state licensing of bottle clubs was removed.
Current law requires any place “open to the general public” where alcohol is consumed to have a liquor license, but Harrington has said his strip clubs are private, admitting only people who have purchased a membership.
Rupe said the commission is trying to close the loophole. “We had concerns that people were trying to utilize the bottle clubs to work around local ordinances and local oversight,” he said.
So Larson, who chairs the legislative committee that oversees liquor laws, added the bottle club provision to his LB 632, a bill that contains several proposed law changes.
One section would define bottle clubs and mandate that such clubs obtain the “appropriate classification” of liquor license, based on what kind of alcohol is consumed there. Such bottle clubs would also need to keep lists of the names and addresses of members.
Club Omaha isn’t the only example, said Rupe and Larson, but it and other bottle clubs opened by Harrington have gathered the most publicity.
Harrington operates three other strip clubs, in Hastings, Grand Island and Elm Creek.
Disputes with local governments and lawsuits have accompanied most club openings. Recently, a federal judge dismissed a $100 million civil rights lawsuit filed by Harrington against the Seward County Board over an ordinance there that regulates sexually oriented businesses.
Until now, the bottle club portion of LB 632 has flown under the radar as another aspect bill that deals with craft brewers drew headlines.
Omaha City Attorney Paul Kratz said the city didn’t pay much attention to the bill when it was introduced in January because Harrington had not yet announced his plans to open a bottle club in Omaha in the former 20’s Showgirl Night Club.
Dave Ptak, the city attorney in Hastings, said he was unaware of the bottle club clause in LB 632 until a reporter called. “It’s piqued my interest,” he said.
Omaha Sen. Burke Harr, whose district is near the new strip club, said he’s aware of the provision now and is hopeful that LB 632 can be passed by the Legislature this year.
Whether that will happen, though, is unclear, mostly because of the controversy over the craft brewers provision.
Craft brewers organized en masse to oppose the bill, complaining that the clause would put a crimp on the rapid growth of microbreweries by requiring them, except when delivering beer to outlets they wholly own, to first drop their beer off at a liquor distributor. That would add to the cost of the beer and cut into their profits, the craft brewers maintain.
Larson, who has taken considerable heat for the craft brewing clause, said he’s only trying to protect the state from a lawsuit over unequal treatment of brewers, big and small. The senator said it’s a lawsuit the state would most likely lose.
Larson made it clear that he won’t seek advancement of LB 632 unless the clause on craft brewers is included.
The senator, who recently moved from O’Neill to Bloomfield, said he’s still reworking the bill to resolve craft brewers’ concerns before asking the General Affairs Committee to advance it.
LB 632 has been declared a priority bill by the committee, which means it would be debated this year if it is advanced.
Larson said he hoped to get a committee vote on LB 632 in the next couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, Kratz said the City of Omaha is looking at another “angle” to address Club Omaha.
But Harrington didn’t sound worried during an interview Monday. He has filed five federal lawsuits in the past two years in defense of his strip clubs.
Since the club’s opening in Omaha on March 24, Harrington said he’s signed up 800 members and stands ready to react to any challenges to his operation.
“We will remain open and remain operating,” he said. “We’ll just have to change a few things.”