License Extension for Broad Street Clubs Denied After Protests
Two spots have long been a bane to commercial development on lower Broad Street, and for about a week at the beginning of February it looked like that might continue indefinitely.
Two nude dancing establishments, Discotheque Lounge on Broad Street and Vegas Show Girls on Sixth Street, had their licenses “grandfathered” in 2002 to allow them to stay open when the city decided to ban such venues from downtown Augusta. The licenses would stay in effect until the owner of the clubs, James “Whitey” Lester, either sold the properties or passed away.
Then, in its Jan. 28 meeting, the Augusta Commission decided to allow the licenses to be passed along as part of the Lester estate, which could have kept the clubs running for many years.
That’s when Joe Edge, owner of Sherman & Hemstreet Real Estate, and others stepped up to protest.
“I moved our main office downtown last year because I saw the laws on the books and I was assured that when the club owner passed away, the clubs would be discontinued,” Edge said.
Sherman and Hemstreet’s offices are at 624 Ellis St., just about a block from Vegas Show Girls at 212 Sixth St. and two blocks from Discotheque Lounge at 533 Broad St.
Edge said the two establishments have kept commercial and retail businesses from considering that area of the city for development.
“I bring businesses in all the time and they won’t go past Sixth Street because of the clubs,” he said. “The Discotheque cuts that block in half. The only things that will go near a strip club are tattoo parlors and pawn shops — that’s not a theory, it’s proven.”
He was informed by a friend about the commission’s decision to extend the clubs’ licenses.
“The majority of the people were not aware of it because it was quietly done,” Edge said. “I saw it as our mission to make everyone aware of it.”
It didn’t take long for his awareness campaign to go viral. Within two days he had gathered 500 signatures against extending Lester’s license to his estate, and by the time the commission met again, he’d surpassed 1,000 signatures.
“It surprised me it happened so fast,” he said.
But that wasn’t the only thing that happened quickly. At its Feb. 4 meeting, the commission did a full 180 and unanimously rescinded its previous ruling, defying the usually slow grinding of government wheels.
Edge said that without the affirmation that the license will expire when Lester sells or dies, that area of Broad Street “would look exactly like it does now for the next 20 years.”
There is, of course, still no firm date for when those clubs might disappear, although the 75-year-old Lester is said to be in failing health.
“I don’t know how long it will be, but I do know the end is in sight,” Edge said. “It’ll open lower Broad to development.”
That will take some time, he admitted.
“You can’t crush a part of town for 50 years and expect it to come back in five years,” Edge said.
But he said that once the clubs are closed, the owners of the surrounding properties will be able to bring in new businesses or sell their properties at a profit, which is what happened to properties where other strip clubs had been located.
Plans are being formed to convert the former train depot on Reynolds Street, just a block from Discotheque Lounge, into an area for apartments, offices and retail. Edge thinks that will make the area on Broad between Sixth Street and Gordon Highway a prime location for apartments, offices and retail as well.
“I think you’ll get another restaurant down there, some type of retail use and loft apartments in the area,” he said. “I’ve had a conference with almost every grocery store there is about getting something downtown, and the access for one is good over there. We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Olde Town Neighborhood Association and Olde Town Augusta LLC, among others, had joined Edge in protesting the change to allow the clubs to continue. The protest was primarily based on business and development, although a few people also spoke against it on religious or moral grounds.
Discotheque Lounge is one of the oldest continuing businesses downtown. Lester opened it in the mid-1960s, and it has developed some notoriety as a popular attraction during Masters Week and with soldiers from Fort Gordon.