Houston & Peach

Community leaders, business people cheer as Cafe Erotica razing begins

By Wayne Crenshaw

wcrenshaw@macon.com

With all the enthusiasm normally reserved for the opening of a new industry, a crowd of about 100 people celebrated the closing and pending destruction of Cafe Erotica on Friday.

The crowd erupted in applause and hoots of joy when a track hoe tore down the big "Cafe Erotica" sign on top of the building.

The "We Bare All" sign over it was left up for the moment, but it won't last long either, officials said.

After the ceremonial demolition, contractor Garrette Martin tore down the billboard facing Interstate 75 in the rear of the property, then started the demolition in the rear of the building. He expects it to be completely down some time next week.

Ron Sanders, who picketed Cafe Erotica when it opened in 1992, came out to celebrate the closing of the nude dancing establishment, where Jerry Springer once filmed a segment for his TV show.

"For a family atmosphere, it's a great day," Sanders said.

Responding to bloggers and others who have suggested that community leaders should not celebrate the closing of any business, Warner Robins Area Chamber of Commerce President Ed Rodriguez said the ceremony wasn't about that.

"The bottom line is the bloggers are wrong, the letters writers are wrong," Rodriguez said. "What we are celebrating here is new investment and a new front door to two great counties in Middle Georgia."

Peach County Chamber of Commerce President Perry Swanson and Byron Mayor Larry Collins both credited the closing of Cafe Erotica to growth in the area. The club had been offered for sale to remain as an adult club, but the investment group that wanted to take the property in a different direction was the one that offered the right price.

"Today is a celebration of the evolution of the economy of this region," Swanson said. "The value of this particular piece of real estate exceeded what the former business here could generate."

Cafe Erotica, located just off Interstate 75 at Exit 146, was a 24-hour restaurant that offered food and nude dancing. Just down the road from it is Middle Georgia's last nude dancing club, Strippers, formerly the Neon Cowboy.

Cafe Erotica, however, drew particular disdain from critics because of its higher visibility, its location directly on the interstate exit and especially its huge, garish "We Bare All" billboards along I-75. Those billboards were still up Friday, but the sale included an agreement that the signs would come down within 60 days.

John Chambers, whose wife owns Strippers, said in an interview Thursday that business hasn't picked up at Strippers since Cafe Erotica closed. And only a couple of Cafe Erotica's dancers have come to work there, he said.

"I think most of them went to Atlanta," he said.

Cafe Erotica closed abruptly July 1 after a group of 11 local investors bought the property with the intent of creating a commercial development.

Tom Bulger, one of the investors, said the property is getting wide interest and he expects to have it sold within 60 days. He said it will likely be bought by a chain restaurant, a convenience store or a retail establishment.

The 42 acres behind the tract is slated for a mixed-use commercial development that could include a big box retail store. Bulger said infrastructure work for that piece of property will begin soon and he expects to have it finished by January.

Other members of the ownership group, Middle Georgia Investors LLC, are Lee Wingate, Mick Drigger, Stacey Brewer, Ben Hoots, Kevin Bentley, Kevin Baggerly, Steven Jenson, Danny Rosales, Trent Vasile and Clay Howell. Most are from Peach and Houston counties.

Bulger said the group did not start out with the intent to shut down CafeErotica. They were originally trying to buy the 42 acres behind it to develop. But the more they talked to businesses about locating there, they realizedCafe Erotica was a problem.

"One thing that kept becoming a common denominator was that the cafe had to go," Bulger said. "That created a mission to put this deal together."

Mayor Collins said that with Cafe Erotica closed, the city is now working with the investment group to annex the property into Byron.

"I want to quote my favorite philosopher Mr. Rogers when I say it's a great day in the neighborhood," the mayor said. "We are very pleased that they will become a part of the city of Byron."

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