Despite the suggestive name, the promise of pole-dancing and a flier depicting a woman pulling down her bikini bottom, Parks maintained that the new venture was not a strip club because the dancers would wear "swimsuit attire or other attractive clothing."

The new club was located across the street from a church and near a cluster of residential homes. Several citizens complained, and the club, which opened November 12, was forced to close eight days later when the city council voted unanimously to deny Blackmon's application for a business license.

"A lot of things coalesced into the timing of that [press] conference," says St. Clair County prosecutor Robert Haida. "Several citizens groups approached us and asked us to do something. We had been aware of the problem for a long time, and concerns had been expressed through official channels. We were asked to increase our efforts and make it a more public issue."

Johnnie Blackmon did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

East St. Louis is in dire fiscal straits. Facing a $2 million budget deficit, the city plans to cut seventeen positions, including five police officers and five firefighters.

In an embarrassing but illustrative example of the depth of the crisis, the police department's drug-sniffing dog was nearly repossessed last month by a breeder who said the city failed to pay him the $5,000 he was owed for the canine, which changed hands on February 1.

At the town-hall meeting, Parks pointed out that forcing establishments to close early would have a significant impact on the city's strained coffers. Cedric Taylor, who also owns Javon's Fine Dining, an east-side restaurant and bar, came prepared with figures to back the mayor's claim.

"We paid this year over $150,000 to the state of Illinois and more than $100,000 to East St. Louis in revenue from sales taxes," Taylor told the crowd. "These are the things you have to look at."

According to statistics kept by the Illinois Department of Revenue, sales taxes from "Eating and Drinking Places" in East St. Louis generated more than $1.3 million in 2008. The funds were divided among the state, county and city.

Beyond the clubs' direct contributions, others point to a trickle-down effect on the city's economy. Parks argues that the late-night visitors help keep other local businesses afloat. Taylor points out that he employs fifteen people at Club Casino, almost all of whom live and spend money in East St. Louis.

"There are a lot of people that work in these clubs. Right now, with the economy the way it is, you going to take jobs away from people?" seconds Club Casino's DJ C-Note. "I need that money at the club. I got a mortgage. I got kids to feed."

Willie "Bay-D" Spratt is a promoter who heads a group of East St. Louis entertainment businesses, primarily record labels, collectively known as the Coalition. Spratt believes that closing at the same time as St. Louis' bars would almost certainly put East St. Louis' nightclubs out of business, given that the vast majority of customers arrive after 1:30 a.m.

"Towns die because of things like this," he says. "Look at Wellston — they used to be a hotbed for entertainment. If [the clubs] close, East St. Louis doesn't have anything going beyond that. It's a run-down city already. Imagine what it will be like without this revenue."

Further complicating matters is the Casino Queen. Taxes collected from the riverboat gambling facility account for roughly 40 percent of East St. Louis' annual operating budget. Because the Casino Queen has the same type of liquor license as the nightclubs', it would be subject to any mandated change in hours. With business at the casino down 20 percent in 2009, many city leaders are wary of inflicting further damage.

"We surely don't want to cut off our nose to spite our face," says Delbert Marion, an East St. Louis council member. "If [the nightclubs] are generating the type of revenue that can offset the losses of the Casino Queen, then we'll take that into consideration. But then again, do we want to take the risk of having people under the influence of alcohol and drugs pouring into the city, where the police department is already strained?"

Hard-line nightclub opponents insist that any arguments about the clubs' financial contributions to the city are moot.

"The highest priority is saving lives, not whether a bar would go out of business," county prosecutor Haida says. "That's an easy call. If it's revenue versus saving lives, I'll take saving lives every time."

Ask anyone who has ever frequented or worked at an East St. Louis club if the establishments are behind the city's crime woes, and you're likely in for a resounding "no."

"With clubs and anything else, you have to look at things deeper than that," says DJ AJ, of radio station KATZ the Beat (100.3 FM). "Education, schooling, upbringing — that's where it falls. I can't say a nightclub is the cause of people getting killed and murdered. I don't want to hear that as an excuse.

"Violence happens away from the nightclub when people follow each other outside, so the easy logic is that if the club wasn't open, those people wouldn't have been there in the first place," he continues. "But at the end of the day, people who do wrong — whether in the club or in the mall or whatever — they going to do whatever they going to do. Using the club as an excuse is valid to a point, but it's not everything. Not even close."

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