The Cheetah, Atlanta’s iconic — or perhaps infamous — nude dancing club, sits on 2 acres of the most sought-after dirt in the Southeast.
When you hear the real estate term “highest and best use,” this Spring Street property has 35 stories of live/work/play written all over it, not a reconfigured Chrysler dealership, which is exactly what the nudie club is.
This week, The Atlanta Business Chronicle ran a story saying the local titans of Atlanta’s development scene — the Cousins, the Seligs and such — are lusting after the property, envisioning gleaming glass towers there because that’s what real estate moguls do and because, at this moment, not every square inch of Midtown has been covered by grand edifices.
A few years ago, Georgia Tech, which is just across I-75/85, started incubating (or whatever the word is) tech companies to keep some of its grads from vamoosing Atlanta. It has worked. During a recent traffic jam on that interstate, I counted six or seven cranes in Midtown.
Kevin Green, CEO of the Midtown Alliance, said there are, like, 18 major projects under construction in one square Midtown mile. Since January 2015, 2,800 residential units have been built and 3,700 are under construction. That’s not to mention the 1.8 million square feet of office space.
“It’s unprecedented in terms of sheer intensity and numbers,” he said.
The Cheetah property is said to be worth $30 million, which is an ungodly amount of table dances. In fact, I think about 3 million without tip.
That all seems to be a very good problem for Bill Hagood, the Cheetah’s owner and a man who said he has been recognized as a national leader in the industry because he was one of the people who put two things together and made them legal in Georgia — alcohol and nudity.
It’s a combo that for decades has had him minting money and had state and city politicians boiling.
“I’m the guy who brought this industry out of the gutter and into the light,” he said in a half-hour conversation this week.
Hagood, who is 82, has run the Cheetah for 30 years and another incarnation of it around the corner for a decade previous to that. He’s at a time in his life where he might be considered Atlanta’s Grand Eminence of Unclothed Entertainment.
Not so by a long shot.
A lawsuit filed by a former dancer portrays Hagood as a leader of an “enterprise for the shared purpose of earning revenues through the illegal operations, which include a pattern of sexual abuse, harassment, drug distribution and sale, attempted rape, racketeering, and illegal drugging.”
Alison Valente, who worked there for more than a decade, said she was fired in 2015 after complaining that fellow dancers were bullied into performing sexually for high-rolling customers.
Hagood vehemently denies it all and has hired expensive lawyers such as Ed Garland and Steve Sadow to fight those allegations.
Also threatening his club and the entire industry are lawsuits contending that dancers should be treated as employees, not independent contractors, and that they are owed millions in back pay.
The combination of lawsuits, the terrible publicity, a flattening of business, his age, health and the insane value of his property all line up to say this might be a good time for him to pull the rip cord and live comfortably in his California home. Right?
Again, not so by a long shot.
Selling to developers at this time, he said, would be like fessing up to the charges and slinking away.
“I’m a Marine. I’m a fighter,” he said. “I’ve got things to prove before I think about selling. I have a lot of people who work there and depend on me. I’m a loyal guy. I’m not a greedy guy.”
He calls the litigation “lies” and a “crazy, crazy lawsuit brought on by a couple of strippers. We settled with one.”
He said he doesn’t like to call dancers strippers, he prefers “entertainers,” but he kept calling the plaintiff in this lawsuit the former.
Hagood was among those on the forefront of the issue in the late 1980s when the state tried to make it illegal to buy a distilled beverage while watching a nekkid lady dance. The state Supreme Court ruled that it is, indeed, a God-given right and — sort of — settled the argument. But the governments of Atlanta, DeKalb County and Cobb County have all wrestled with the issue since.
Alan Begner, the pony-tailed attorney who has carved out a comfortable living protecting the inalienable rights of nude clubs, said the Cheetah would in essence shut down if it were sold.
Back in the early 1980s, the city limited where nude clubs can operate, with minimum distances required from residential areas. Those that existed at the time were grandfathered.
“There’s no new locations in Atlanta,” Begner said. “No one has found a location since 1984.”
The two dozen that existed back then have been whittled down. The Gold Club was closed in 2001 for being a mob-run Sodom and Gomorrah. But Begner argues that liquor licenses for such clubs are so valuable that the clubs tightly police themselves for fear of losing them.
The city has had a love-hate relationship with such clubs, and the Cheetah and other emporiums are on the must-visit lists of many convention-goers.
“I contribute a considerable amount of money (in fees and taxes) to the city,” Hagood said.
But times are changing. That money is a rounding error to what a tower would bring. And his club managers tell him millennials are different — they aren’t so keen on lavishing dollars on strippers. Besides, they can see a lot more on the internet.
Hagood hinted that his joint will be sold one day, alluding to his estate and his will in our discussion. But until then, there will be an octogenarian waging a seemingly never-ending legal fight from his bunker on Spring Street.
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