ATLANTIC CITY — Last week’s precedent-setting decision to allow dancers to strip down to pasties and G-strings at a forthcoming casino club contradicts rules that apply to similar establishments seeking liquor licenses outside gambling halls.
New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Enforcement issued a liquor license last week to Scores Atlantic City, which will be the first New Jersey club to feature nearly naked dancers and also serve alcohol when it opens this summer inside the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.
Most competitor club owners think Scores, which promotes an upscale environment at locations in New York and four other major cities, could draw more people to the city — and that’s a good thing, if it happens. But they also view the development as the latest example of the advantages afforded casinos long seen as unfair by businesses elsewhere in the resort.
“Why is it OK across the street and not at my establishment?” Coconuts strip club owner Larry Belfer said. “Aren’t we supposed to have the opportunity to make the same living? Whether we’d have more business remains to be seen, but it’s just a question of inequities here.”
Belfer’s club just off Pacific on Florida avenue serves alcohol, so dancers there must wear bikini tops. That’s because Coconuts — and all other noncasino liquor license holders — are subject to the state division of Alcoholic Beverage Control rulebook, which explicitly prohibits pasties.
“See-through garments and the use of ‘pasties’ are not considered sufficient covering,” states its section on go-go dancing and live entertainment.
Liquor license applications for casino venues are handled by the DGE because “the strict casino environment has been deemed by the Legislature to be different,” division spokesman Zack Hosseini said in an emailed statement.
Hosseini didn’t respond when asked why, exactly, that difference necessitates that two separate regulatory agencies handle liquor-license applications. DGE was also unable to answer.
But it’s been that way since the inception of casino gaming in New Jersey.
“Casinos by law are regulated differently than bars and have been for more than 30 years. If another casino wanted to do this five, 10 or 15 years ago, the result would have been the same,” Hosseini said
But before Scores, neither the DGE — nor the state Casino Control Commission before that — had been asked to consider such a skimpy-attire dress code for a liquor license applicant, CCC spokesman Daniel Heneghan said.
“It’s always surprised me that gentlemen’s clubs hadn’t come to (casinos in) Atlantic City, or in Las Vegas. I’ve always been kind of amused and kind of confused about the idea that casinos somehow have to be protected from prurient interests,” said Wayne Schaffel, a former gaming executive who now heads the Public Relations Network in White Plains, N.Y.
Officials from both ABC and DGE, in addition to the state Attorney General’s Law and Public Safety Division, discussed the Scores opinion before it was issued Friday, Hosseini said.
Acting DGE Director David Rebuck said at the time the decision did not amount to a legal exception. And Scott Silver, attorney for the club that filed its application as Starlight Events LLC, said the business never sought to change the law.
That’s true because the DGE rules — and CCC before it — neither expressly allowed nor banned pasties. They didn’t mention them at all, but the description of what body parts had to be covered during casino entertainment would have allowed that level of exposure. Now, the DGE has addressed pasties specifically, in contrast to the long-established ABC position.
“I have my doubts, but I hope Scores will do well. It just bothers me,” Belfer said of the disparity.
The disparity is simply the most recent of a succession that includes the city’s smoking ordinance, said Belfer, who’s been in the local adult entertainment industry for more than a decade.
That law allows patrons to light up on 25 percent of casino floor space, but not at all in businesses elsewhere in the city.
Tom Sherwood, owner of upscale burlesque club Diving Horse, agreed. He said he’s less concerned about the specifics of the DGE decision than he is about its seeming contradiction to the stated emphasis on developing nongaming diversions.
“Atlantic City needs to wake up,” he said. “You have to provide the same opportunities for everyone if we want to move forward.”
The Atlantic City Alliance did not respond to questions about how the decision fits — or does not — with its forthcoming marketing plan. But it clearly departs from Republican Gov. Chris Christie and other stakeholders’ hope to rebrand the resort as a family destination.
“I suspect it will encourage other properties to try it. I suspect that as time goes on, they will probably allow even more nudity,” Schaffel said of Scores. “It’s a way to give the casinos a little bit of an edge at a time they’re trying to survive.”
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