When Larry Holmberg opened an adult entertainment center in the shadows of Minneapolis City Hall in 1993, he set off a feud worthy of the Hatfields and McCoys. He had quietly bought McCready's, a popular watering hole on the corner of Third Street and Third Avenue South, remodeled overnight, and then reopened the establishment as Buns & Roses.
City officials were apoplectic. Not only had Holmberg made the switch without notifying them of his intent, but he was also within a stone's throw of a day-care center. "This is outrageous," sputtered City Council member Pat Scott. "That kind of use is a real detriment to the area." Detrimental or not, the move was perfectly legal. The city of Minneapolis was stuck with Larry Holmberg. And vice versa.
Nearly six years later, the club has traded the Buns & Roses moniker for the more salubrious "Rick's Cabaret," the name of the Houston-based dance-club chain to which Holmberg sold the business last November. However, the now-retired operator says, he isn't done with the city. Last month, Holmberg took four Minneapolis police officers to trial, claiming they had assaulted him during a 1995 business inspection. And though the jury threw out his claim, he's already preparing for the next case--the one, he claims, that will blow the lid off a pattern of harassment, intimidation, and impropriety on the part of the Minneapolis Police Department.
Believe it or not, says Holmberg, he got into the adult entertainment industry by default. In 1990, his downtown Anoka pizza parlor went belly-up. Holmberg sold the building to a brother and a cousin who promptly converted it into an adult bookstore. When city officials tried to change zoning laws to shut it down, Holmberg says, his relatives abandoned the business. Holmberg, by his own admission not one to turn down a buck or a good fight, took over and launched a counterattack. He retained Randall Tigue, a prominent First Amendment attorney who'd represented local porn king Ferris Alexander, to fend off the city. The case--which Holmberg eventually won--meant that his reputation as a scrapper was established by the time he ventured into the Minneapolis market.
The vice squad came to check out Buns & Roses during its first week of business in the spring of 1993, says Holmberg--hardly an unusual occurrence given the nature of his business. Police regularly inspect adult bookstores and strip clubs to make sure that customers aren't engaging in sexual activity. What Holmberg did find extraordinary, he testified during the brutality trial, was that on a couple of those visits, some of the cops hit him up to "sponsor" their race cars and horses. "They'd ask me to donate money in exchange for advertisement," he said.
At first, says Holmberg, he refused to support the cops' hobbies. But over the course of a year, he maintains, the more he refused, the more the police conducted business checks--until, he says, he decided to go along. Holmberg contends that he paid $6,000 to Officer Kim Hedberg to sponsor his race car. "After payments to Hedberg were made," his lawsuit alleges, "police harassment at Buns & Roses ceased."
While Hedberg acknowledges that Holmberg sponsored him, he declines to specify the amount, adding that it's no one's business what he does in his spare time. "The department encourages us to have hobbies," he points out. Hedberg says when he approached Holmberg about the race car he told him that he was a cop on the downtown beat, and that he wouldn't cut Buns & Roses any slack if Holmberg decided to contribute. "I told him that I'd continue to do my job," says Hedberg.
Which was exactly what he should have done, says MPD spokeswoman Penny Parrish. Officers often become friends with business owners on their beat, she explains: "If [an officer] had a race car, then that's something private between him and Holmberg." According to Parrish, the department has no policy on sponsorships, except for prohibiting use of its logo without permission. (Shortly after our interview, Parrish called back to say that Police Chief Robert Olson wanted to clarify the department's view: "If I were a sworn officer, and I came up to you and said 'I have a race car, would you sponsor my car,' then there's nothing wrong with this. But if I interjected the fact that I was a police officer, and that my position with the department might help you, then that would be a violation." )
Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, also says Holmberg is wrong to contend that the sponsorship pleas were inappropriate. "Businesspeople are approached daily to support some kind of cause," he asserts. "I hardly think they'd give because it's a police officer who's doing the asking." Minneapolis Police Federation President Al Berryman agrees, noting that "it's expensive to maintain a race car. If the money is going for gas or upkeep, I don't see anything wrong with this arrangement." Berryman acknowledges that, in some cases, officers catch heat because of whom they ask to sponsor them: "If it had been someone other than Buns & Roses, people probably wouldn't object," he says. "It's a moral judgment."