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Rural Area Protests First Amendment Video

Missouri- When Tricia Potter and her family moved from Boonville to rural Cooper County nearly two years ago, she thought the country setting was simply ideal.

Gerald Ulrich, owner of FAV I-70 of Cooper County, an adult video store located off of Exit 98 on Interstate 70, stands along a section of video booths where customers can put money in cash-operated televisions that offer 60 channels of adult videos.

The white, two-story farmhouse near Interstate-70’s exit 98 needed a little work, but Potter imagined it would be a good place to raise her four young children. The Amish furniture store next door added to the homey atmosphere. But four months after the family unpacked, the Amish furniture store closed and Potter’s new neighbor – an adult video store – moved in.

Just across the yard from Potter’s house, FAV I-70 of Cooper County, sometimes called by its former name, First Amendment Video, sells triple-X-rated movies and magazines. Customers can enter private booths to watch movies and, in a few booths with windows, each other.

“If we knew this was going up next door, we never would have bought the house,” Potter said. Her neighbor, store owner Gerald Ulrich, knows the Potters were upset when he moved his business from another property farther up the road, but he said he hasn’t caused the family any real problems and doesn’t intend to. “I have a good relationship with her,” he said. “I’d like to keep it that way.”

Adult businesses that once existed behind tawdry facades in inner-city commercial districts are sprouting like volunteer corn across rural America, and Mid-Missouri is no exception. No fewer than seven stores and a nude dance club have sprouted along a 30-mile stretch of I-70 between Columbia and Kansas City. Interstate drivers need only peer up at gigantic “XXX” signs to figure out what’s inside.

Business owners found that less restrictive, or nonexistent, zoning laws created a fertile field for their stores. And I-70’s high-traffic volume simply added to the allure.

The three competing video stores at I-70’s Exit 98 west of Boonville – First Amendment, Venus II and Company Direct Video -soon could be joined by a gay bathhouse, said the latter store’s owner. If that happens, Exit 98 would have the highest concentration of adult businesses along any Missouri highway.

The owner of two adult video stores in Cooper and Saline counties – Passion’s at Exit 103, and Passion’s Too at Exit 78 – said he first examined the local laws and contacted each county’s commissioners.

“We received no objections,” said Gene Gruender of Austin, Texas. “They welcomed us. We’re not interested in cramming our business down somebody’s throat.”

But Phil Burress, president of the Cincinnati-based Citizens for Community values, says adult-business owners go in knowing they have an advantage over rural communities that either are too poor to fight them in court or lack the legal skills to outmaneuver them.

“When they come in, they’re no different than McDonald’s,” he said. “They do a feasibility study. Part of feasibility is resistance. Are there any zoning laws, is there licensing and what are the regulations? If you zone and regulate to the fullest extent of the law so that it’s so restrictive, they won’t choose to locate here.”

Burress said he has driven through Missouri and seen the adult businesses and signs along I-70.

“They love the interstate interchanges,” he said. “They love to locate in the rural areas because they know they can easily fight a little township that has no money.”

He recommended that local or state government hire a consultant to write more restrictive regulations and enforce them.

“Obscene pornography is not protected by the First Amendment,” he said. “Missouri has a good obscenity law. Any adult bookstore that sells X-rated tapes should be prosecuted.”

Burress’ organization is hosting a workshop, Impact America, on June 12 in Louisville, Ky., where 15 experts in regulating adult businesses will train people to fight the growth of adult businesses in their communities.

Boone County commissioners took steps last fall to make it tougher for such businesses to open by requiring operators to apply for harder-to-obtain conditional-use permits. Since then, no new adult businesses have opened to join the county’s only adult venue outside Columbia, VIP Massage, which sits about 2.5 miles north of I-70 on Highway 763.

Boone County officials don’t want an expansion of adult businesses similar to those of Columbia and Cooper and Saline counties. Columbia is home to no fewer than four adult video stores, two strip clubs and about half a dozen escort agencies.

“I’ll be honest, we tried to make our ordinance as stringent as we can and still be in accordance with the law,” said Northern District Boone County Commissioner Skip Elkin. “I don’t think anyone would deny that we tried to make it as difficult as possible for them to do business here.”

And adult-business owners are smarting from newly passed state legislation that will restrict and remove many of their highway signs.

If signed into law by Gov. Bob Holden, the legislation will prohibit any new sex-themed billboards and require existing ones to comply with size and content restrictions or risk removal. An adult business located within a mile of a highway could have just two signs – one showing the name and hours, the other warning minors to keep out.

Passion’s owner Gruender vows to destroy the proposed bill in court.

After learning that it passed the General Assembly, he contacted an attorney and the American Civil Liberties Union to prepare for a legal battle he promises to win. He said he is prepared to bankroll the legal fight alone.

Gruender said that before the bill passed the legislature, he rented nearly 25 billboards in Missouri. Last week, he rented two more and is considering another three.

Ulrich also has promised to sue should he be forced to take down his signs. His largest sign is more than 30 feet high and stands several dozen yards away from his store. The words “Adult Video Outlet XXX” are accompanied by a cartoonlike drawing of a bikini-clad woman from the waist up. Motorists coming from both directions easily can spot the illuminated sign.

“I paid $21,000 for that,” he said. “I’d quit” my business “before I do that. I have no intention of taking my signs down.”

Customers agree. Earlier this month, trucker Ron Williams, 55, of suburban Chicago stopped by Passion’s Too. He said the signs brought him to the store as a first-time visitor.

“If they start doing that, they’re violating the constitutional rights and free speech,” he said. “If they’re allowed to limit the size for one type of business, then why not for all?”

The law might not be as effective as legislators believe, said Stephen Gilpin of Company Direct Video, a movie vendor at Exit 98.

“If you don’t think there are 25 ways around that so we can have signs, you’re wrong.”

Gruender considers himself a businessman who is pumping up the area’s economy.

He said his two stores paid nearly a quarter-million dollars in salaries last year to approximately 11 employees and $170,000 to the government in sales, payroll and property taxes. He also said he donated $2,000 to charities and fund-raisers during the year, including the Boonville police and fire departments.

Wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a long, snowy ponytail down his back, the soft-spoken Gruender appears like a cross between a wise tribal shaman and Jimmy Buffet.

He spent 20 years as a computer engineer for Motorola before he, his wife and son opened Passion’s in August 1999. Sales consistently grew, so Gruender opened Passion’s Too last June.

When he’s not overseeing store operations, Gruender prefers to sail the Gulf of Mexico aboard his sailboat, the Rainbow Chaser, and to write travel stories for sailing magazines.

His Boonville store opened in a location that previously held Teaser’s Palace, a nude strip bar that had trouble with the law before it burned in 1996.

“We talked and we talked with the commission before deciding to open,” Gruender said. “They actually welcomed us. There have been no complaints as far as I know of because we try to be good neighbors.”

Teaser’s opened in May 1993 amid criticism from residents and rumors of prostitution and drug use occurring inside.

“We took what was basically a slum and turned it into a benefit to the community,” he said. “The business we replaced was a juice bar. They had a lot of troubles. In the scheme of things, we were quite an improvement.”

Passion’s carries nearly 7,000 movies for sale, with more than half in DVD format. Gruender said many products he sells at Passion’s – massagers and lingerie – could be found at the Columbia Mall.

And although some mainstream video stores have adult sections that often are not adequately secured from minors, “they can’t even get in here,” he said.

“There are people who’d like a place like this to be closed,” Gruender said. “But they don’t realize that there is a market for this. It’s a far bigger industry than most people realize.”

Trucker Larry Jackson, and his wife, Gail, of Miami, are part of that market. They recently visited Passion’s to look for amateur porn videos during a cross-country trip to Seattle. They planned to stop at several adult video stores along the way, Jackson said.

The 52-year-old has spent more than 32 years on the road and watched the industry spread quickly with new stores.

“In the last four years, they’ve grown so tremendously,” Jackson said. “People are just more open about sex. These stores here have about everything and anything you can think of.”

But just opening up the doors isn’t enough to warrant success, said Billy Crowson, Venus II’s general manager. The store initially didn’t do as well as he’d hoped, so an arcade was added.

“You have to go in with the best service, the best product and the best location,” he said. “You really never know in this business whether you’re going to be busy or not. We really thought the Boonville store would be a gold mine, and then more stores opened and took away from that.”

Although it might seem contrary to the nature of his business, Ulrich’s store has a homespun atmosphere that complements his grandfatherly demeanor.

A few cat toys lie on the floor for “Gwen,” the store’s resident black feline. There’s a big, round table with chairs, where Ulrich is quick to offer a friendly chat. He provides a wheelchair for disabled shoppers. And at the back of the store, a sign tacked over a coffee maker reads, “Enjoy a cup of coffee, hot chocolate or tea while you shop.”

Ulrich said the customers are a mix of single men and women, couples, locals, travelers, straight, bisexual and gay.

“I have almost as many women customers as men,” he said. “The younger women – nothing bothers them. And truckers are some of my best customers.”

Ulrich is used to controversy. Being elected as an “out” gay mayor of Bunceton was controversial enough in 1980 to motivate ABC’s “Nightline” staff to interview him and the townspeople about it.

That notoriety is part of why Stephen Gilpin offered Ulrich a job as manager of First Amendment Video.

“I knew he was the mayor of Bunceton and that he knew all the local police,” Gilpin said. “So I offered him about $10,000 more than he was making.”

Eight months later, Ulrich bought the business from Gilpin but continued to lease the building from him for the final three years of the lease.

Gilpin said his management company, FA Properties LLC, is in discussions to lease properties at Exit 98 to an adult magazine vendor or a lingerie line.

He said a Connecticut businessman’s plans for a former truck-wash building at Exit 98 might upset rural residents more than the video stores.

Gilpin said Rocco Fugere of MBV Enterprises is purchasing the old truck wash, and he has seen Fugere’s drawings that detail plans to convert the building into a gay bathhouse.

Bathhouses typically are located in large cities and operate under the guise of spas, but most are sex clubs for gay and bisexual men.

Fugere, who is selling an adult bookstore in Milford, Conn., denies such a plan. He described his new venture as “a regular health club,” where he also will sell food and fitness equipment.

Cooper County Western District Commissioner Charles Lee Schotzhauer said the county’s governing body was not aware such a business might be on its way.

“We never know about those things until they’re already here,” he said. “We have no planning and zoning, so we have no control over it. They can pop up on every corner. I knew there was interest in that property, but I had no idea what it was.”

But Schotzhauer said he’s not dead set against such businesses.

“There’s nothing wrong with the video stores, in a way,” he said. “The truckers stop in there and watch those videos. It shouldn’t bother anybody. As long as they don’t get wild, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

 

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