Army's decree could be death sentence for some businesses
Monday, July 26, 2004
COLUMBUS, Ga. -- The dancers still put on their pasties and twist around the brass pole at the Cellars Lounge.
But their tips have dropped to almost nothing, and their boss wonders how much longer the business can survive since it has been declared off-limits to its most loyal customers -- soldiers from nearby Fort Benning.
Cellars was one of eight local businesses -- three motels, two lounges, two dance clubs and a sports bar -- that the Army recently banned, citing concerns about drugs, prostitution and violence.
The off-limits designation can be a death sentence for businesses that depend on soldiers. Some of the owners, such as Cellars proprietor Sherry Melton, said they were shocked at the news and still haven't been officially notified, but will work to correct any alleged problems.
"I'm a veteran, too, and we support the military," added the club's DJ, Jimmy Walden. "To think that we would do something to hurt the soldiers shatters our feelings."
Melton and other business owners said they develop close bonds with the young soldiers and treat them like family. Some owners say they often pay cab fare for soldiers who were either too drunk to drive, or too broke to pay. One said he even has persuaded two soldiers not to go absent without leave.
About three-fourths of Melton's customers are soldiers, including many who have fought in Iraq.
"We've had them come from the desert with tears in their eyes," she said. "They grab me and hug me with their bags still on their shoulders. They're like our kids."
Army officials say the off-limits orders handed down June 29 were based on police reports.
Columbus police records show that one of the establishments, the Boom-Boom Room, had a history of criminal activity from April 2003 to May 2004. Soldier Stanley Swanson, 23, was shot dead in its parking lot in May. Police charged two other soldiers with his murder.
"We're obligated to take care of the welfare of our soldiers and family members," said Army spokesman Rich McDowell. "In the past we've looked at auto repair shops, dog kennels, real estate dealers and car dealers. We investigate and if they are ripping off soldiers or presenting an unsafe place to recreate, then we'll put them off limits."
Weekend sweepsDuring two weekend sweeps earlier this month, Columbus and military police officers hauled off at least eight soldiers who ignored the ban. They face fines, extra duties or restriction to post for disobeying a lawful order.
No soldiers were picked up last weekend, officials said.
Cellars and four other establishments were placed off limits by a military disciplinary control board that considers the suitability of area businesses for military personnel. Fort Benning's commander, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Freakly, banned three others, but they can meet with the board later this month.
Melton said her club was placed off limits because a soldier allegedly bought drugs from one of her employees, even though the club has a strict anti-drug policy. She has since posted a large sign out front that says, "Dear Ft. Benning. We do not sell drugs at Cellars Lounge."
"It's not just me losing money," she said. "It's the girls who dance. They work for tips."
Cellars is located on Victory Drive, a street lined with title-pawn shops, tattoo parlors, motels, liquor stores and strip clubs, all catering to soldiers. Three other banned businesses -- Gold Lounge, the Candlelight Motel and the Ponderosa Motel -- are also on the street.
Ivey Summerlin, 68, a retired Army first sergeant who has owned the Ponderosa for 15 years, said he believes he was targeted because he reports problems to the police.
"I've never had any shootings, knifings or killings," he said. "I had to call the police for prostitutes and drug pushers and got them arrested. Whenever the ... board looked at the police blotter, they assumed that the motel was not fit for the military."
Linda McClendon, a co-owner of Memory Lane, said she has received no notification from the Army and has no idea why her business was targeted. Without soldiers, who also make up three-quarters of her customers, she's has had to send some of the her 14 employees home early, reducing their earnings.
The well-kept, 15-year-old club sits across the street from a church and some patrons come over early Sunday mornings for a free breakfast, she said. The club also has "Beach Night" on Wednesdays with a buffet and '50s and '60s music and a happy hour on Friday evenings with food ranging from pizza to barbecue.
"We've never had any arrests," McClendon said. "If we don't get it straightened out, it's going to put us out of business."
On the Net:
Fort Benning: http://www.benning.army.mil/fbhome/