It's around noon the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and a trickle of errand-runners are finishing up their shopping along Payne Avenue on St. Paul's East Side. Couples rush to get their holiday picks at Video Update, a knot of old men huddle outside the Salvation Army, and the smokers outside the auto-parts store look up as a car with a bad exhaust roars by.
But at 1037 Payne Ave., everything is quiet. A green-and-pink sign bearing the words "Emporium Antiques" moves slightly in the breeze. No one answers to a knock at the door, and no light escapes from the shuttered windows. You'd never guess that this quaint brick storefront has become the center of a roiling neighborhood controversy.
Earlier this month, members of the Payne-Phalen District Five Planning Council, which represents much of St. Paul's East Side, sent a letter to St. Paul Police Chief William Finney, Mayor Norm Coleman, Ramsey County Attorney Sue Gaertner and state Attorney General Skip Humphrey expressing "frustration with...a call service being operated at 1037 Payne Avenue." The letter requested that police work with the county attorney's and attorney general's offices "to expedite law enforcement activities at 1037 Payne and do whatever is necessary to remove this business."
The business is L&D Productions, a service that books "dancers for stag parties and other occasions," according to owner Jerome Smith. Smith says he's aware of complaints to St. Paul officials from neighbors, as well as competitors and "people we won't hire." Asked for further details, he snaps: "I don't owe anybody an explanation....Clearly we are being harassed."
Greg Copeland, a neighborhood activist who has led the charge against L&D, says that while Smith's business has been discussed at a variety of community meetings, no invitations were issued to him. "I don't want to meet with folks who are selling other individuals," Copeland explains. "It's clear from the ads that something illegal is going on." (L&D's classified ads in local newspapers, including City Pages, promise "ABSOLUTE SATISFACTION!! 1177 Females on Staff.") "To me, there's not a whole lot to discuss, except why law-enforcement officials haven't taken action."
Lt. Joe Newberger of the St. Paul Police Department's Vice Unit says "out-call services" like L&D Productions have been around as long as anyone can remember; St. Paul police are aware of at least a dozen such operations currently doing business in the city. Typically, Newberger says, the services consist of an inconspicuous office where a phone operator takes customers' requests for exotic dancers and dispatches women or men to meet the callers.
What has police concerned, Newberger says, is that while the agencies charge customers a fee, negotiations over the nature and the price of the service are conducted between individual contractors and customers. Sometimes, he says, more is provided than just an exotic dance. "But it's a complicated investigation to prove that the owner of the business is deriving profits from [illegal] activity. They provide dancers only, or they provide escorts only. They tell the girls they'll be fired if they're arrested."
Modern telecommunications equipment has compounded the problem, Newberger says: Services might offer local phone numbers in several cities and have all calls routed to a central location. And more and more services advertise and take orders over the Internet, making their transactions harder to trace. Newberger says his unit is conducting an ongoing investigation into area out-call services, but adds that he can't comment on its details.
Smith, for his part, vehemently defends his record, noting that in his five years in business, there has never been a criminal complaint filed against him. (Criminal records in Ramsey County show no charges or convictions for either L&D or Smith.) Perhaps, he speculates, what really bothers his critics are the dancers who sometimes stop in at the office: "They're nice-looking women, and the [neighbor] women's husbands look and they get perturbed. Clearly a wife is going to get perturbed when she sees that her security blanket is getting ready to unwind."
Smith's logic fails to persuade Copeland, who says he has made myriad calls to various city offices seeking L&D's removal--all to no avail. "Everybody's making excuses for this guy, yet everyone claims they care about this neighborhood," he scoffs. "People in the neighborhood are waiting."
But there's nothing much authorities can do, says Kris Schweinler, senior license inspector of St. Paul's licensing department. The city does not require licenses for offices or individual exotic dancers, she says. Over at the city's zoning department, manager Wendy Lane adds that "what is occurring [at 1037 Payne] is just office work. It's appropriately zoned for that use."
It's possible, says the Police Department's Newberger, that the neighbors' ire is motivated by something other than L&D Productions. Streetwalkers have been working the sidewalks near the Payne Reliever strip club, a few blocks away from L&D's office, he says: "The neighbors may assume the girls walking the street are affiliated with [L&D]," he says. "But this business is much more sophisticated than that.
"I'm sorry I can't do more for the neighbors. If I could go in and move [Smith] out myself I would, but he has some rights, too."