The Whole Truth 

The case of a Cordova restaurant indicates the need for stronger club requirements.

I loved the old Perry Mason reruns in which that peerless lawyer would get the alleged wrongdoer to admit to a crime in open court. But, of course, those of us who live in the real world understand that people do not always abide by the rules of honesty and full disclosure, even when caught in the act.

Several questions have been raised regarding the intentions of Steve Cooper for Stella Marris, his now dormant "restaurant" located in Cordova just off Germantown Parkway on Fisher Steel Road. Is he telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth? I'll let the facts speak for themselves.

Cooper, a known proprietor of what lay-folks call strip joints, has done very well for himself in the adult-entertainment industry. It could even be argued, despite what you may think of him personally or of his tactics, that he has been successful at building businesses.   

Several years ago, Cooper purchased the property on Fisher Steel, just across from First Tennessee Fields, a nationally renowned Little League baseball park. He claimed he had no plans to open another strip joint. Instead, Cooper said he was interested in using his wealth of business knowledge on behalf of the riskiest business model in the nation. He claimed he wanted to open a restaurant. 

Notwithstanding Cooper's business savvy, he seemed ill-prepared and uncommitted to any sound business philosophy, changing the name and type of restaurant several times before he opened. At first, he said he intended to open an Italian restaurant called "La Italiano." Next, it was to be a seafood restaurant called the "Ocean Club." Then Cooper finally settled on "Stella Marris," a high-end steak and seafood restaurant. 

Here was an experienced businessman deciding to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a restaurant, similar to what one would find in Las Vegas, in an industrial section of Cordova, with no clear plan of success. 

It would seem Cooper's past business success did not translate well into the restaurant business, because he closed after only a few months to "remodel." Perhaps the fact that the "restaurant" does not have windows was the problem, or the fact that the building was built with dance stages typically not found in upper-end restaurants. Or it may have been the fact that there were so many private rooms in the building. 

Did Cooper change any of these flaws during his remodeling?  No, instead, he increased the size of the parking and filed for what is called a "compensated dance permit."

Now, a compensated dance permit, if granted by the Memphis City Council, would enable all of the following:

Beer and liquor could be sold; women could be paid to dance in the club; they could take tips from customers; they could take customers to back rooms (of which the Germantown Parkway facility, as mentioned, has several) for private dancing; they would not be allowed to be totally nude — the relevant code specifies only that the dancers must cover up "the breast below the top of areola or any portion of the pubic hair, anus, cleft of the buttocks, vulva, or genitals." They could not engage in prostitution, nor "touch, caress, or fondle the breasts, buttocks, anus, or genitals of any other person," but they would be allowed to dance in front of and next to customers.

Should the dancers violate the "no touching" rule or expose more skin than the law permits — say, in one of those many back rooms — they could incur fines ranging from $50 on a first offense to as much as $1,500 for multiple offenses. Experience has taught us that operators of sexually oriented businesses are typically willing to accept the risk of such fines — mere slaps on the wrist — given the income generated by performers, coupled with the volume of alcohol sales.

We need to reconcile our adult-entertainment laws with our regulations regarding obtaining a compensated dance permit. That means, at a minimum, increasing the financial penalties and suspending beer sales on first offense.

Perhaps all Cooper wants to do, as he claims, is to open a fun club with live bands and lively dancers — something like, say, Coyote Ugly on Beale Street, which stays well within the bounds of legal propriety.

In that case, he should have little problem in joining with us to insist that the loopholes alluded to above be eliminated. 

Brian Stephens is a founding member of the Cordova Leadership Council.

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