A Fort Worth food park grows where a strip club faltered

Posted Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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campbell The soup, thick with corn and a smoky kick, was well worth $4; the fish-and-chips were crispy and filling.

Thank goodness that strip joint wasn't allowed to take root next to the river.

The Clearfork Food Park took up residence a few months ago on a prime spot next to the Trinity River jogging trail and within shouting distance of the Fort Worth Zoo. With its gravel paths, landscaping, permanent bathrooms and Fred's Texas Bait Shack bar, the park on Merrimac Circle is an inviting good-weather alternative to a cornucopia of restaurants in the University Park Village area north of Texas Christian University.

But who remembers the short-lived "gentleman's club" that launched a First Amendment challenge -- eventually unsuccessful -- to the city's adult business ordinance?

I do. Because my boss sent me to check it out.

It was the worst assignment ever. Worse than the north side tire fire.

In May of 1995, John Michael Schlueter opened Sports Fantasy Bar & Grill, which was permitted as a restaurant, not a sexually oriented business, but had female dancers who stripped down to bikini bottoms and liquid latex pasties.

Residents of Mistletoe Heights across the river weren't titillated. Nor were dentists who officed nearby or city officials who dreaded seediness creeping into the still-developing upscale corridor.

I couldn't very well tell my boss (a woman) that the thought of walking into a strip club, even on assignment, was mortifying beyond belief. Let's just say I enlisted a trusty male companion so I wouldn't have to go alone. To this day, my husband finds it inconceivable that I took him to a strip club.

But we went. I saw. I wrote.

And the city shut the place down after three days. Courts upheld regulations that banned nudity or simulated nudity at establishments within 1,000 feet of parks, schools or homes.

Schlueter appealed, making a high-falutin' argument about unjustified restraints on free speech and about giving women equal rights with men to undress in public. He said the city didn't provide reasonable alternative locations for businesses like his, pushing them out to undeveloped areas like Alliance in north Fort Worth. If only he'd had better foresight, I suppose.

None of those arguments succeeded.

In the meantime, Sports Fantasy operated for a few weeks as a restaurant with sports on TV. Then it briefly opened as Peckers, with men dancing down to their Speedos. Apparently there wasn't much of a Magic Mike market at the time.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission licensed the location as Trinity Sports & Billiards Club from 1995 to 1998 and cited the place eight times from September 1995 to March 1996, the last for public lewdness, sexual contact and obscenity. River Night Club had a liquor license there from 1998 to 2000 and received warnings in 1999 for "cash law" and outdoor advertising violations.

The building burned to cinders in May 2001. Running by there on the trail at the time, I couldn't help but wonder about how curious it was to have a failed business just go poof.

Schlueter went on to make big bucks running bingo halls, though the state suspended one of his licenses for running illegal games and cheating Women's Haven of Tarrant County out of money, according to Star-Telegram archives and state records.

Once upon a time, 1541 Merrimac Circle was home to the Old Swiss House, a white-tablecloth place overlooking the river where you took your parents on special occasions.

Now, it's a family-oriented, cyclist-welcoming, pet-friendly food truck island off a bustling street just south of construction on the interchange of Interstate 30 and the new Chisholm Trail Parkway.

I invited my husband there last week and didn't have to explain why.

Linda P. Campbell is a Star-Telegram editorial writer.

817-390-7867

Twitter: @LindaPCampbell

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