Little Lavonia, the town where I work, was in the news nationwide last week, when they bought a strip club.

I broke the story, which first aired on our radio station and then was picked up by the Anderson Independent newspaper (I string for them).  From there, the Associated Press picked it up and the rest is history, as they say.  CNN, Fox News, the New York Times, Forbes, the Washington Post, every major publication it seems, picked it up.  But I’m proud to say, I got the story first when the city manager called me the day before and told me to be at a special called city council meeting for a big announcement.

Here’s the original story as it first appeared in the Anderson Independent ( http://www.independentmail.com/news/2008/jul/29/city-lavonia-purchases-cafe-risque-plans-bring-new/) and the photos I took of the bonfire. I can’t believe how fast this story went literally around the world.


LAVONIA – The days of weary truck drivers pulling off the interstate for a cold beverage served by a topless waitress are over.

The Cafe’ Risque’, long a thorn in the side of Lavonia City fathers, was purchased by the City Tuesday for $995,000.

In a called meeting last night, Lavonia mayor Ralph Owens told a standing room only crowd at city hall the deal had been in the works for months through a third party and by noon Tuesday, the keys had been handed over to the city.

“Several months ago, I proposed we take our reserve fund and pay off the bond fund for the water treatment plant upgrade, which would have resulted in a savings of over $1.2 million dollars in interest payments,” mayor Owens began. “Since then, the City was offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to get rid of a very undesirable business in Lavonia.

The transaction has now been finalized and we can make history for our city. By purchasing the Cafe’ Risque’ property the City can now rid itself of that terrible business and the awful I-85 billboard blight,” he concluded.

The news resulted in cheers and a standing ovation from the crowd who then followed the mayor out to the Cafe’ Risque site where all of the signage was removed from the building by a tractor, dragged to the center of the parking lot, and burned in a large bonfire as more onlookers clapped and cheered.

Since it opened in 2001, the Cafe’ Risque was a continual sore spot and source of embarrassment for a city known for its hometown flavor and fundamentalist values.

It never forgave owner, Jerry Sullivan, the owner of numerous strip clubs up I-85 and I-75 in Florida and Georgia, for the duplicitous way he opened his strip club off exit 173.

“I remember when Jerry Sullivan walked into my shop and started telling me about the restaurant he intended to open,” recalled City council member David Howell. ‘We’re building a Cracker Barrel type restaurant and we make the best tomato gravy in the world,’ he told me. He planned to call it, Skeeter’s Big Biscuits. Two weeks later, we saw what it really was.”

Shortly after the city council got a tour of the mom and pop restaurant and gave Sullivan a business license, he went to work.

That same night Sullivan had crews take out the booths, replace the lunch counter with a bar, and brick up the windows.

By 5 a.m. the next morning, Sullivan was in business as the Cafe’ Risque’ – a topless strip club with the City powerless to stop him.

Lavonia had never instituted any kind of adult entertainment ordinance and Sullivan knew it.

Years of lawsuits back and forth between Lavonia and Sullivan usually resulted in losses for the City.

His lawyers were able to successfully argue that nude dancing was a form of expression and protected under the Constitution.

As if to rub salt in an open wound, Sullivan purchased six billboards on I-85 in Franklin County, advertising his strip club to truckers and motorists headed north.

But in 2003 after yet another lawsuit, Sullivan agreed to stop serving alcohol and to bar patrons from bringing it in, if Lavonia would allow more nudity. They agreed.

In 2006, the club was raided by Lavonia police for allowing illegal video poker machines.

That resulted in a another lawsuit by Sullivan which he lost when the city was able to remove a loophole in their agreement with Sullivan that barred Lavonia Police from coming on the premises.

Later that year, Sullivan died in sleep at his home in Alachua, Florida. He was 47.

Still the club continued to operate and according to Lavonia City manager, Gary Fesperman, the city could never find out exactly who owned it.

“Then several months ago, we heard the owners were trying to sell it,” Fesperman explained. “We knew they would never sell it to us, but a third party, who does not want to be identified, offered to buy it for us. Just before noon today (Tuesday) we closed on the property the keys were over to us. They (former Cafe’ Risque owners) won’t find out until tomorrow who really bought it,” he said.

Fesperman says this time the City plans an all out marketing campaign to promote the property as a place for the family restaurant Sullivan had promised originally.

“We want to put some type of high quality eatery up there to go along with the type of businesses we want at that interchange,” he said.

And with tough new laws in place against adult entertainment, Lavonia doesn’t anticipate any surprises.

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