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At Myrtle Beach: Strippers and Golfers Thrive Off One Another

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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C – from www.bellinghamherald.com – Crystal “Shy” Roberts climbed the roughly 10-foot pole at the Penthouse Club, gripping its metallic surface with her thighs as it swayed a foot in both directions.

On that early April Friday night, Roberts played to mostly small groups of men seated around small cocktail tables in low-slung chairs at the Horry County club. Many of the men wore polo shirts and baseball caps and smoked cigars as dancers moved from lap to lap through the room.

For a dancer such as Roberts, spring means more dollar bills from the men who sidle up to her on the stage as golfers flood the area’s courses and strip clubs. Many golfers will drive for hours to come from the Northeast and Midwest during peak season, which club operators say runs from mid-February to early May.

Some golfers come just as much for strip clubs as for the golf, she said.

“There’s golf courses everywhere else. Why come to Myrtle Beach if you don’t have strip clubs?” 27-year-old Roberts said between dances.

Golf is big business for South Carolina’s northern coastline, known as the Grand Strand, during the spring shoulder season as players fill up courses, book hotels and eat at area restaurants. But less discussed among tourism industry leaders, elected officials and golfers themselves is the money they spend on adult entertainment. That spending has given rise to an array of strip clubs drawing women from across the United States and other countries to dance.

There are at least 14 operating strip clubs in Horry County, which includes Myrtle Beach and has a population of about 269,000, according to the 2010 Census. There’s at least one club in southern Brunswick County, N.C., just across the state line. By comparison, Atlanta, with a population of 420,000, has 19 strip clubs, according to a 2010 Atlanta Journal Constitution report.

There are no statistics on the amount of revenue generated by strip clubs in Horry County because the taxes paid are lumped in with all restaurants and bars, said Samantha Cheek of the S.C. Department of Revenue. But club owners and managers say they are major contributors to the state and local tax base.

The industry’s nearly 3,900 clubs nationwide generate about $12 billion in revenue annually, although that figure was higher before the recession, said Angelina Spencer, executive director of the Association of Club Executives, an adult club trade group.

“I would say that that assessment is pretty typical, especially given you’re in a tourist area,” she said of the county’s 14 clubs.

“The number of clubs gives the Myrtle Beach area a dual identity, said Mike Rose, owner of The Gold Club.

“We are a family destination, but also it’s a resort town, and golf is a big part of the business here,” he said. “The golfers want to go out and have a good time.”

Tourism officials promote the area as family-friendly and seldom mention strip clubs.

“They put blinders on and like to think that we’re not here,” Rose said.

Strip clubs have been part of the landscape for a while, but they aren’t essential to getting golf tourism, said Stephen Greene, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Hospitality Association.

For example, Palm Springs, Calif., has lots of golf, but doesn’t have a lot of strip clubs, he said.

“(Strip clubs are) a part of the vacation experience we have in the Myrtle Beach area, but it’s not something we push on our overall marketing of the family experience,” Greene said.

Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, which promotes a group of Grand Strand golf courses, has never partnered with or promoted strip clubs.

“Is there a demand for them? Sure, obviously there is, or they wouldn’t be here,” President Bill Golden said.

The organization similarly never promoted gambling either, Golden said, before video poker was outlawed roughly a decade ago.

Myrtle Beach Mayor John Rhodes said clubs take away from the family experience and are best when they are away from major thoroughfares. Myrtle Beach has three strip clubs within the city limits, although some are in pockets overseen by the county but are completely surrounded by the city.

“It’s not like what’s out on (U.S.) 501, which I do not approve of,” Rhodes said of the highway leading into Myrtle Beach. “The strip clubs out there are exposed to all the tourists coming in. I think where we have them in an industrial area is more out of the way.”

Rhodes said he’s spoken to Horry County Council Chairman Tom Rice and they agree they’d like to do something about the clubs. Legally, there must be an area for strip clubs to operate, so governments are limited in what they can do, Rhodes said.

If elected officials were to limit adult clubs, they would be throwing away the large amount of tax revenue that the clubs generate, said Joe Hargadon, general manager of Thee DollHouse. Public officials and those outside the industry often judge the industry without knowing much about it, Hargadon said.

“Nobody is ever going to give me a gold star (for) doing this for a living,” Hargadon said. “I never expect normal, old-fashioned, 40-hour-a-week people to understand what I do.”

Under the purple-and-red lights inside Thee DollHouse, a few men sat in rows to watch a dancer on a Wednesday night in early April.

“All of these guys are golfers. There’s not a single guy in here who is not a golfer,” Hargadon said while walking through the club. “We all make our money during the golf season.”

The club has several curtained-off areas, which Hargadon said are predominantly used during the golf season.

Hargadon’s assistant manager Jack Davenport, who oversaw an area of VIP rooms on that night, has worked at Grand Strand strip clubs since the 1980s, when there were only two. As more golf courses were built, adult clubs kept pace, he said.

“It went from two slices (of the pie) to like 13 clubs, so each slice is smaller,” Davenport said of the increased competition.

Dancers come from as far as Alaska and England, and sometimes farther, to work here during golf season, club operators say.

Roberts, who has worked at roughly five clubs in Horry County, said about 80 percent of the dancers working during golf season are from out of town. Her fellow Penthouse Club dancers on a Friday night in early April came from as far as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Manchester, England. Most declined to be interviewed.

Jordan Burke, who came from North Carolina to work briefly at the Penthouse Club, said she knows a lot of girls who she works with in Charlotte, N.C., that come for the busy season. Some have apartments in Myrtle Beach because they come to dance so frequently, she said.

Spencer, now executive director of the adult club trade group in Washington, D.C., once was a dancer in Ohio. In the 1990s, she made three or four trips to Myrtle Beach to dance, she said. She went to the Master’s Club in Myrtle Beach unannounced once in search of work with a friend.

“We said, ‘We’re looking to dance. … Can you get us on the schedule tonight?’ ” she said. “And they said, ‘You’re hired.’ ”

Rose estimates that in peak season there could be more than 400 dancers on the Grand Strand. His club will employ as many as 60 dancers, he said, up from about 25 or 30 in the off season.

Roberts is a single mother, as are many dancers, and many of her co-workers are stripping to pay for school, she said. They generally dance because it pays a more livable wage, said Roberts, who formerly worked as a cocktail waitress and plans to stop when she is 30 and go back to school for nursing.

“We’re middle-class girls who were growing up and our parents couldn’t pay for school,” she said.

Of roughly a dozen golfers approached by McClatchy Newspapers for this report, nearly all would readily speak about strip clubs in the area, but most did not want to have their names attached to their statements, saying that they did not want it to affect their jobs or marriages.

Only one golfer, retired autoworker Daniel Warren, would speak on the record about the clubs. Warren, a Michigan resident, came with 11 of his friends – all former General Motors workers – to play a round of golf a day, and it was the first time in Myrtle Beach for many of them.

“We do have clubs in Michigan, but I once in a very great while go to the ones up there,” Warren said while shopping at Martin’s PGA Tour Superstore in Myrtle Beach.

Warren would never go to a club by himself, but the group is likely to in Myrtle Beach because it’s guys’ time out, he said. They will likely choose what club to go to based on word of mouth, he said.

“We’re dragging the married,” said Warren, who is single. “They have to go where we go. We’re the leaders.”

Rose said he promotes The Gold Club to golfers through radio and print ads as well as mobile phone alerts about club events and specials, which many golfers opt into. The club also runs shuttle services to and from hotels during golf season, and puts passes for free admission in many area restaurants, a practice common to clubs in the area. Rose works with some golf packagers to distribute passes to golf groups, he said.

Many golfers come to Myrtle Beach regularly so they already know where to go, golf packagers say. Golf Gurus only gives out the passes to groups if they ask for them and only a small percentage does, owner Kish Gohil said.

“Most of these guys know where they want to go, they just want to know if we have those admission tickets,” Gohil said. “They just want to save a few bucks.”

Golfers may not ask about strip clubs, although they likely do go to them, said Paul Mullen, golf sales coordinator for hotel management company Oceana Resorts.

“It’s something that probably people feel uncomfortable about asking strangers about over the phone,” Mullen said.

For package company Golf Desk, promoting strip clubs doesn’t help sell golf packages most of the time, said Mark McCallum, a sales coordinator. The company previously sent out passes on request, but now that happens rarely or not at all, McCallum said. That’s probably because so many customers are repeat visitors who likely know the clubs already, he said.

When they did send out passes, it wasn’t without pitfalls, he said.

“We found one guy one time who had to cancel because he asked for some passes and we sent him some passes … and his wife opened them up and got upset,” he said.

The Grand Strand strip club industry has changed significantly in the roughly four years Roberts has worked as a dancer.

“When I first started dancing, I didn’t have to do anything,” said Roberts, who said she could make more than $2,000 in a night. “I could just stand there and look pretty.”

The recession and slow recovery has taken its toll on clubs as it has on other sectors of the economy, Spencer said.

The Association of Club Executives classifies the industry’s markets into three categories based on setting: “A” clubs are in major metropolitan areas like New York, Las Vegas and Atlanta; “B” clubs are in secondary markets such as Cleveland and “C” clubs are in rural areas.

“A” markets often lost some revenue but continued making money, whereas “B” markets – which include Myrtle Beach – had mixed results in the recession, Spencer said. Some “B” clubs made money and some lost money, but most were able to stay open, she said. Across the board, “C” clubs lost money and many had to close as a result of the poor economy, she said.

The recession brought down profits at The Gold Club, but it remains profitable, Rose said.

“People were still coming but they weren’t spending the money the same: The guy (who) would come and spend several thousand dollars, now (he) comes and is spending a few hundred dollars,” he said.

As the economy gains, some of the big spenders are starting to return, Rose said. It will likely be five to 10 years until business returns to prerecession levels, he said.

Tips have suffered the most at Thee DollHouse since the recession, although the club itself didn’t lose any profit, Hargadon said.

The clubs will continue to draw in vacationers, even if they aren’t spending as much, Roberts said.

“All around, most guys want to come here and loosen up,” Roberts said. “It’s a regular bar here where the girls they talk to are (nearly) naked.”

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