LINCOLN — Nebraska’s newest state senator and one of its most seasoned lawmakers are mounting a new effort to bring private “bottle clubs,” like a strip club operating in central Omaha, under state regulation.
But the owner of Club Omaha, and three similar clubs across Nebraska featuring fully nude dancers, chuckled when informed of the latest attempt to rein in his businesses.
“We’re five steps ahead of them,” said Shane Harrington, the owner. “I knew this was coming. I planned for it back when it was supposed to be happening the last time.”
Last year, a bill in the Legislature that included regulation of bottle clubs bogged down over other issues. The Omaha City Council, after concluding that it had limited power to shut down such private clubs, passed an ordinance requiring bottle clubs to adhere to “good neighbor” rules already required of liquor establishments.
Harrington said last week that his lawyers have a lawsuit ready if the Legislature passes a law to limit his hours and require him to obtain a state license. Such a lawsuit could take “years and years” to resolve, he said.
“They know I’ll go all the way to the Supreme Court on all of this,” Harrington said. “I’ll gladly take the extra advertising and marketing.”
But State Sens. Theresa Thibodeau, who was appointed to the Legislature in October, and Sen. Bob Krist, who was appointed in 2009, are undaunted.
At the urging of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, both lawmakers drafted bills to regulate bottle clubs, which don’t sell alcohol but instead allow customers to bring their own booze. Thibodeau, whose district includes Club Omaha, will introduce her proposal, which will require bottle clubs to obtain the same licenses as bars and taverns that sell liquor.
“They’re running more like a nightclub than a private club. They should be under the control of the Liquor Control Commission,” Thibodeau said.
“This is a gray area that people take advantage of,” said Krist, who represents northwest Omaha and is mounting a third-party run for governor.
Obtaining a liquor license might present a challenge for Harrington.
In 2011, the state liquor commission denied him a liquor license for a bar in Lincoln, which prompted him to file a $25 million lawsuit against the liquor board and Lincoln officials alleging a “witch hunt” and asserting that he was unfairly denied a license. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.
Complying with state liquor laws would also require Harrington to close his bottle clubs earlier. His Omaha club is now open until 5 a.m., but to comply with local liquor laws, he would have to close the doors at 2 a.m.
Bob Batt, an Omaha businessman who chairs the State Liquor Control Commission, said he’s concerned that liquor is being consumed in private clubs that don’t have the same requirements to ensure that underage customers are not consuming alcohol and that customers who are intoxicated are not consuming more alcohol. The prospect of a person drinking until 5 a.m. and then hitting the road is scary, he said.
“Someone’s going to get killed if this isn’t straightened out,” Batt said. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
But Harrington said that he could not recall one instance of one of his customers causing an accident or being ticketed for drunken driving after leaving his club.
His customers are different from those who frequent bars, he said.
“When you go to the bar, you go to get drunk — everyone knows that,” Harrington said. “When you go to my clubs, the drinking is minimal at best. You don’t go there to get wasted, you go there to see the beautiful girls.”
He said that the price of membership to his clubs, which is $50 a year or $30 a night, plus a $10 admission charge, discourages younger patrons and those who want to drink to excess. Harrington added that IDs are meticulously checked and that any patrons under 21 are watched carefully.
“Regulation should come from problems, but we’re not a problem,” he said.
Harrington has been dogged by controversy, and attempts to shut him down, ever since he opened his first bottle club featuring adult entertainment in 2015, along Interstate 80 in the central Nebraska town of Elm Creek.
But he has a history of fighting attempts to regulate or restrict his businesses, filing lawsuits in Hall County, Seward County, Hastings and Lincoln in recent years.
Harrington now owns bottle clubs in Grand Island and Hastings, as well as Omaha and Elm Creek. He said his clubs have 15,000 full-time members, including about 6,000 in Omaha.
Business, he said, is good. In July, he purchased a home in north-central Omaha for $309,500.
But Krist said that bottle clubs need to be regulated and that legislation to do that should have a better chance in 2018.
Last year’s effort was “mismatched,” he said, with several other liquor issues in one omnibus bill. That bill, Legislative Bill 632, was pulled from the agenda by its sponsor, Sen. Tyson Larson, after an amendment Larson opposed favoring craft brewers was adopted.
What Larson plans to do with LB 632 is unclear. He did not return phone calls and text messages last week.
Krist said that as a stand-alone issue, making private bottle clubs comply with the same regulations as bars has a better chance.
“It needs to happen, it needs to happen this year,” he said.