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Paying Full Booty for Half the Monty

After more than 25 years of showing full nudity at their downtown strip joint, Rusty and Ted Bullard want to give their customers a little bit more. But the city keeps playing fresh with them, so they'll have to take what they can get.

The Bullards own Kimberly's, once known as the Red Garter, a working-class "pop shop" on 15th and Stout streets. The father-son partners also run the Stout Street Saloon, a denim-and-boots watering hole next door. On any given night, Denver's blue-collar crowd can be seen filling both dimly lit businesses with clouds of smoke from their Marlboro reds.

At the Saloon, men with sun-leathered forearms lift bottles of Budweiser. At Kimberly's, dancers push a slow bump and grind on a single small stage that doesn't leave much room for imagination or creativity.

A city ordinance prevents full-nudity clubs from selling alcohol, but all that separates Kimberly's from the Saloon is a wall and a go-between door. Technically, they are two different establishments. But for friends and patrons, and in terms of atmosphere, they are one.

In the last few years, the once-seedy area around Kimberly's and the Saloon has been filled in with expensive lofts, chi-chi entertainment and trendy stores. Sensing the changing tastes and sniffing out a possible cash-in, the Bullards decided to upgrade their business, too. "Bring it into the '90s," explains Rusty, the younger Bullard. "With all that's going on down here, we want to raise the quality so we can have a nicer place. We want to be able to compete with other gentleman clubs."

The Bullards came up with a plan to convert the two businesses into one large upscale sports bar and restaurant with adult entertainment. "We want it to be a little more gentlemanly," Rusty says, envisioning at least thirty to forty more employees, including waiters, busboys, cooks and dancers. The new place would be classy. Maybe even grand.

To serve booze legally at the remodeled club, dancers would have to put on their G-strings, at the very least. No problem, the Bullards agreed.

To further satisfy the city, the owners would also need to pay for a more expensive liquor license--$5,000 instead of the $2,000 they pay now--and apply for another adult-entertainment cabaret license. Again, no problem.

But when the Bullards applied for a permit to double their floor space from 3,000 square feet to 6,000 square feet by knocking down the partition, they were denied by the city's community planning and development agency.

Big problem.
The reason for the denial was a 1976 ordinance prohibiting new adult businesses from opening within 500 feet of a residence--in this case, the expensive new lofts nearby.

Removing the faux barrier between the businesses and increasing the size of the club was the same as opening a new club in the city's eyes, the Bullards were told. "We thought that was unique," Rusty says, noting that Kimberly's was flashing flesh long before the hip urban dwellers came along.

The Stout Street Saloon and Kimberly's are on the first floor of the three-story Bradshaw Building, which was built in 1909. Originally, the building housed one business on the bottom floor and living space above. In 1933 the building was converted into three addresses, with a hotel upstairs and two businesses downstairs. A partition was built to separate them.

When the renewed interest in downtown began earlier this decade, the Denver Dry and Neusteter buildings were turned into lofts less than 500 feet from what was then the Red Garter. The Bullards took little notice, figuring their new neighbors knew what went on inside the place. What they didn't know was that their chances of ever expanding the adult-entertainment part of their business had just evaporated.

Irv Borenstein, the Bullards' lawyer, says the Red Garter violated zoning laws on the day residents moved into the neighborhood--and within 500 feet of the stage.

No one--least of all the Bullards--questions the good intentions of the 500-foot rule, which also prohibits adult businesses from locating near schools, churches and daycare centers. But they wonder how their newly G-string-clad dancers would be any worse for the neighborhood in a 6,000-square-foot building than completely naked dancers would be in half that space.

Rusty Bullard thinks the zoning department is merely "flexing its muscle," playing the often-used morality card.

Charles Meredith, Denver's senior zoning specialist and the man who denied the Bullards' original request, says he was simply going by the book. "We couldn't technically allow them to expand their floor area into the space next door" because of the 500-foot rule, he says.

But, the Bullards point out, the people living near Kimberly's know what goes on inside the club and have never complained. Isn't Meredith's office just splitting hairs?

"No," Meredith responds flatly.
Not willing to give up after the first denial, the Bullards appealed the ruling in March and set their sights on a compromise. Instead of opening the entire club to topless dancing, as they first envisioned, they offered to convert the two businesses into one business, with a sports bar and restaurant on one side and the strippers on the other.

"What the board needed to remember was that the reason for the expansion was to improve the quality of the business," Borenstein says. "If they didn't get the expansion, they weren't going to close down, but Kimberly's would just stay the same as it is. The expansion is trying to give Kimberly's a better people crowd."

After listening to the Bullards' arguments, the board returned a 4-1 vote that suited all parties: The Bullards may serve food and alcohol anywhere--and even allow customers to carry drinks from one side to the other--but the dancers have to stay on one side.

The Bullards plan to renovate the club soon--possibly this summer--converting it into one business and expanding the doorway between the two sides into a large walkway. "We'll look at it like this," says Rusty. "On one side we'll have sports and food, and on the other we'll have a 'Boom-Boom Room,' if you will."

Although the Bullards feel they are the victims of a righteous city bureaucracy, for now they're content with the compromise and with what they've accomplished up to this point.

"I honestly believe the city thought there wasn't a prayer that we would get this far," Rusty says. "I don't think they thought we would get to here, so they went ahead and granted the variance. Now they're like, 'Oh, shit! Now we have to put up or shut up!"

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Justin Berton