By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
Published: July 26, 2012
TAMPA, Fla. — Over at the back door of the 2001 Odyssey, a limo-size tent with flaps — especially designed for discretion and camera-shy guests — is ready to go up. Déjà Vu is welcoming extra “talent” from around the country in its V.I.P. rooms.
Photos By Brian Blanco / The New York Times
The 2001 Odyssey in Tampa. Strip club owners expect revenues to soar way past Super Bowl week levels when the Republicans are in town next month.
The Tampa Bay Times has reported there are 20 strip clubs in Tampa and 50 in the Tampa Bay area.
And Thee DollHouse is all Americana: women plan to slip out of red, white and blue corsets and offer red, white and blue vodka. The headliner that week is expected to bear an uncanny resemblance to a certain ex-governor from a wilderness state, known for her strong jaw and devotion to guns and God.
“She’s a dead ringer for her,” said Warren Colazzo, co-owner of Thee DollHouse. “It’s just a really good gimmick to get publicity.”
As Tampa gears up for the Republican National Convention, the biggest party it has ever held, the city and its businesses are primping and polishing for the August arrival of tens of thousands of visitors. Like it or not — mostly not, for city officials — Tampa’s well-known strip clubs have joined the welcome wagon.
Club owners here say they have schmoozed with their counterparts in former host cities, like Denver, and have been told that revenue pours in during conventions, sometimes quadrupling earnings from a Super Bowl week. As for party affiliation, this is one place where the country’s caustic partisan differences fall away, owners say.
Angelina Spencer, the executive director of the Association of Club Executives, which serves as a trade association for strip clubs, said an informal survey of convention business in New York and Denver had determined that Republicans dropped more money at clubs, by far.
“Hands down, it was Republicans,” she said. “The average was $150 for Republicans and $50 for Democrats.”
As further evidence of the clubs’ nonpartisan appeal, Don Kleinhans, the owner of the 2001 Odyssey, said when the Promise Keepers, a male evangelical group, came to town years ago, business was rollicking.
“We had phenomenal numbers all weekend, and they walked in wearing badges and name tags and weren’t shy at all,” he said.
James Davis, a spokesman for the Republican National Convention, declined to discuss Tampa’s prominent strip clubs.
“We’re expecting to have a great convention,” Mr. Davis said. “We’re focused completely on having a great convention.”
To be fair, Tampa is known for other things: cigars, Ybor City — the historic district where Cuban and Spanish cigar makers first settled in the late 1800s — three major sports franchises, four Super Bowls and beautiful beaches a short drive away. It is the Florida Gulf Coast’s economic engine and hosts a raucous pirate party every year called Gasparilla.
But Tampa cannot shed its national reputation as the strip club capital of the country.
“It’s not true,” said Joe Redner, the owner of the renowned Mons Venus and a man famous for fending off local attempts to close his club. “It would be nice, though.”
The Tampa Bay Times has reported there are 20 strip clubs in Tampa and 30 in the Tampa Bay area. Tampa does not have as many strip clubs as New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston, New York and Las Vegas, owners said. Miami boasts quite a few, too.
Mr. Redner, who has repeatedly brandished the First Amendment, has been arrested 150 or so times and has run often for public office, may be one reason for the city’s reputation. Savvy and colorful, he took on the city in 2000 when it tried to cripple his club; instead, it bolstered his reputation. A Tampa councilman back then, Bob Buckhorn, who is now Tampa’s mayor, backed an ordinance to ban lap dances by keeping customers six feet away from dancers. The rule, intended to curb prostitution and drugs, passed but is mostly not enforced.
During that fight, Mr. Buckhorn recalls saying that he “did not want Tampa to become the lap dance capital of the country.” But the statement got truncated and twisted, like in a game of telephone, then repeated, most recently during the debate over gambling in Florida.
“We wanted Tampa to be a place where we were proud to call home,” said Mr. Buckhorn, a Democrat. “But we have grown so much bigger and moved beyond that small city we were. We don’t think about it anymore.” Yet he is not without a sense of humor. “I wonder whether the look-alike will be able to see Russia from the stage,” he asked, a question meant for the ex-governor’s doppelgänger.
The spaceship, a much-talked about private V.I.P. room perched atop the 2001 Odyssey like a wedding-cake embellishment, has also helped burnish Tampa’s louche label. It is white, oval, with round windows, a rare prefabricated Futuro house designed by the Finnish architect Matti Suuronen in the 1960s and 1970s.
“It was named one of the seven wonders of Tampa Bay,” said the Odyssey’s manager, Todd Trause. The provenance of that distinction is hard to decipher.
Inside, Jazmin, 19, prepared to live-chat on a webcam to a faraway customer, one of the club’s new features. She is also preparing for the convention. Given the opportunity to stand up before a politician, she will do her job, naturally, but also share her own tale of financial struggle, as many voters here would do.
Laid off from a job in the Medicaid billing industry, she scraped by as a cashier at a grocery store. The paycheck scarcely covered her car payments, she said. Then a friend of a friend told her about the strip club, and now there she is, saving her money (the most she’s ever made) for nursing school.
“With the economy,” she said, “it’s hard.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: July 27, 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated the estimated number of strip clubs in the Tampa Bay area. There are 30 such clubs. The article also included incorrect information from The Tampa Bay Times and its Politifact Web site, based on a 2006 economic development study, about the number of strip clubs per capita in Cincinnati.