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Neighbors upset downstate school has been converted to strip club
Topless dancers perform in former cafeteria; old teachers lounge now a VIP room
This former school cafeteria in Neoga Township, Ill. is now known as The School House Gentleman's Club, a venue which features topless dancers. (Photo for the Tribune by Steve Warmowski / May 15, 2010)
May 20, 201
Nancy Ward isn't happy about what's become of Pioneer School, which served fore than 50 years as both a place of learning and a community center where people gathered to sing hymns, attend 4-H meetings and sell homemade pies.
About six months ago, the vacant elementary school bordered by homes on a rural highway was converted into a strip club called The School House. Downstate residents are still fuming.
"It's a whorehouse," said Ward, co-owner of a nearby garden center where she and her husband live. "I honestly don't feel as safe here as what I did. And the name they gave it — that is unbelievable. There's nobody in there learning anything, I guarantee you."
The school about 60 miles south of Champaign was sold by the Neoga school district in 2002 for $36,800. Now, three nights a week, as many as 10 topless dancers perform in the former cafeteria on a small stage with a mirrored backdrop set that includes two stripper poles under black lights.
The teachers lounge has been converted into a VIP room where lap dances go for $20, an ATM installed outside. The walls are hung with multiplication tables, chalkboard, a history of U.S. presidents and a poster titled "Class Rules" that reads "Keep hands off dancers." One entrance has been fenced off for a smoking area, and a sign near the back door reads "No Hard Liquor."
"Myself, I wished it was gone and the hell out of here," said Frank Enloe, 74, a former sheriff's deputy who has lived about 300 feet north of the school since 1965. Now he doesn't feel comfortable hosting late-night cookouts on his patio and wakes each night as the club lets out around 2 a.m. "It bothers us — we put all five of our children through here."
"It just makes us sick," said Marian Lindley, a former teacher at the school.
But to Bob Kearney, a union electrician who runs the club with business partner Travis Funneman, The School House is a legal business that has been a small bright spot for the county's economy.
It doesn't serve alcohol and has never been cited by authorities, and only one person has been arrested there — for damaging club property. For those seeking such entertainment, the other nearest venues are more than an hour away.
"This building was falling apart — we totally renovated it," said Kearney, who has a one-year lease on the former school. "Nobody cared about this building until we moved in. You show me another business in Cumberland County that has created 30 jobs for people.
"It's no longer an argument of legality; now it's an argument of morality," he said as a stripper crawled across the stage. "Is this Nazi Germany? Are they the Taliban? It's OK to break the laws as long as it's in the views of my religion?"
There were no adult-business regulations in Cumberland County before the club opened, and it remains the only such business in the county. To obtain what amounts to a business license, the owners in September wrote their names, addresses and business name in an old leather-bound county book and ran a newspaper ad for three weeks.
They were not required to say what type of business they had planned.
As talk of what was going on in the schoolhouse spread, the county in December prohibited adult businesses from opening within 1,000 feet of homes, schools or parks. It also banned completely nude performances.
But the owners say the law doesn't apply to existing businesses, and at least for now, county authorities apparently agree.
Still, the County Board has commissioned a study to determine if the new ordinance would illegally ban any strip club from the county, a first step in possible legal action.
"This is a very small county, and the people just don't want it," said County Board Chairman Robert Swearingen. "They don't want this in their neighborhood, and I can't really say I blame them."
Strip clubs are afforded protection under the First Amendment, and officials realize they could potentially be walking into a legal minefield by attempting to force The School House to close.
"You can't make it a witch hunt," said Cumberland County State's Attorney Barry Schaefer. "You can regulate adult businesses, but if you can't regulate it the right way, it won't hold water in court."
Residents here have happily lived alongside other sometimes-noisy organizations, such as the Central Illinois Motorcycle Club and the bar that opened in an old church up the road.
But even if it's legal, many residents remain fiercely opposed to a strip club, run by out-of-towners, in what many still consider their school in the heart of their crossroads community.
A small number of protesters still gather each night across the street, light a bonfire and post a sign that says, "Does your family know where you are? Jesus does."
A Neoga church's bulletin includes a prayer request each month for "changed hearts at the Old Pioneer School."
Protester Nadine Kastl, 81, a retired school bus driver for Pioneer School, recalled how at a recent basketball game an opposing team's fans waved dollar bills at the Neoga cheerleaders, apparently in reference to the new strip club.
"I can't believe that happened to our kids," she said.
Dancers interviewed at the club said they viewed the old schoolhouse as just another workplace, though the protesters were something new.
Residents are encouraged by what many say has been a drop in business at The School House since it opened, and they are hopeful it quietly will go away. Kearney, though, still has big plans.
"The classrooms — eventually we would like to make them theme rooms and do bachelor parties and private parties," he said. "But that can wait. They didn't build the Taj Mahal overnight."