GILFORD — While the owner and co-manager of the Lakes Region Cafe & Tavern have secured their town license to operated an "exotic entertainment" dance club and restaurant, the vote was not without controversy.
At least two of the selectmen, after making the motion to grant Willard Drew and his business partner Tom Lyons their full live entertainment license, expressed their personal, negative opinions about the operation.
"Someone will disagree with some types of businesses," began Selectman John O'Brien who made the motion to grant Drew his full license on Wednesday night, adding that he didn't agree with exotic dancing and the activity, in his opinion, it allegedly attracts.
"However, due to existing laws in these times, ... I can't legally oppose (it), O'Brien said.
Selectman Chair Kevin Hayes said "he would hold his nose" and vote to support Drew having his license. He said in his 5 1/2 years of being a selectman, no single topic has been brought to his attention by a wider variety of residents than the operations at the King's Grant Inn property during its history as a "strip club."
Hayes also said he hoped that if Drew and Lyons were successful, they would reinvest money back into the property.
Drew's lawyer, David Bownes, thanked selectmen for the license, noting that the meeting was not the time nor the place to respond to their statements. He noted selectmen have the same First Amendment right to express their individual opinions as Drew does to operate an exotic dancing club.
Nevertheless, Drew went to the podium.
He told selectmen that for 22 years he has "jumped through hoops" to keep his business afloat and has sunk nearly $300,000 into the building and property.
Drew said he has been fighting to stay open since 1994, telling the selectmen that if the town had been a little more accommodating, he may have made enough money to reinvest in his property.
He noted that a former police chief also waged a clandestine investigation against him and his business that involved 14 investigations and three undercover operations that yielded nothing.
Ten years ago, said Drew, a former fire chief determined he had to reduce his occupancy from 163 to 99 because he didn't have a sprinkler system, forcing him to close his dining room.
Without naming names, he said there are other entertainment establishments in Gilford who have greater capacity than him who don't have sprinkler systems because their buildings and businesses were "grandfathered," as he believes his should be.
Drew also told selectmen that the portion of Route 11-B from Kimball Road to Route 11 should be zoned commercial-industrial and not residential commercial. He noted that most of Kimball Road is commercial and industrial.
He also said that exotic dancing was "the only thing that pays the bills."
In the not-so-distant-past Drew and Bownes also prevailed in a lawsuit against the town for denying the former Kokomos club an adult entertainment license in a case that went to the U.S. Federal Court.
The Lakes Region Cafe & Tavern will be operating at the former King's Grant Inn. In its most recent incarnation, the historic inn and tavern had been being operated as the Mardi Gras North and though Drew owns the property, he was not an active manager of that business.
In October of 2011, and in the wake of what appears to be a lengthy undercover state police drug investigation, the Mardi Gras North was raided on a Tuesday night by two SWAT Teams and most of the members of the Gilford Police Department. Selectmen as well as some other civilian town employees were present on the property during the raid.
In the wake of the raid, five female dancers and two male patrons were charged and sentenced for a variety of drug charges — most of which were reasonably minor. Three people — all female dancers — in the club were arrested during the raid
Drew has said that during the raid, law enforcement did as much damage as it could to his building, including breaking down doors that were unlocked, ripping out the video security system, and breaking open freezers and refrigerators when they were offered keys to the locks by on-site employees.
The business closed and Drew — as holder of the liquor license — faced a number of civil penalties through the N.H. Liquor Bureau — including one of allowing his property to be used for unlawful activities for which he was exonerated.
After a three-day hearing in front of the N.H. Liquor Commission, he was found responsible for once serving an intoxicated patron, for once serving an employee while she was working, and for once giving away a free drink. He was fined $350 and ordered not to operate for three days.
Although he has opened sporadically since the October raid, in his opinion, selectmen have thrown up numerous roadblocks as he has tried to get his business back on its feet again.
Drew said yesterday that now that he and Lyons have their full licenses, they will be developing menus and a business plan. They had previously told selectmen they were looking at a "soft-opening" so they can work out the kinks and be fully operational by spring and summer.