Theatair X billboard

A recently-placed billboard outside of Theatair X on U.S. 31 in Clarksville. A new owner has filed a federal lawsuit saying the town is refusing to grant a temporary business license, however an attorney for the town says the new business failed to properly apply for it.

CLARKSVILLE — The new owner of adult bookstore Theatair X has filed a federal complaint against the Town of Clarksville alleging the town has refused to grant a temporary business license ahead of a zoning change vote that could prevent any adult store from ever reopening there. Clarksville attorneys say that application was incomplete and that they have notified the new prospect.

Michael Sanchez, president of Clarksville Ministries LLC, which court records state has entered a sales agreement with longtime owner Midwest Entertainment Ventures, Inc. (MEV), has also sent a letter to the Clarksville planning commission stating that the actions are discriminatory and harmful to the LGBTQ+ community, which she says has long found a safe place of acceptance at Theatair X.

“As you likely know, the previous business has existed in Clarksville for nearly 50 years, paid hundreds of thousands in sales taxes and employed hundreds of employees (many of whom are LGBTQ+) and have lived with their families and paid taxes in Clarksville,” Sanchez stated in the letter. “Most importantly, Theatair X is iconic in the local LGBTQ+ community and has been a center of LGBTQ+ acceptance for years.”

According to the complaint filed Aug. 27 in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Indiana, Sanchez submitted an online application Aug. 13 with the Town of Clarksville to operate an adult bookstore at the Theatair X site on U.S. 31 in Clarksville. When reached by email, Sanchez said it won’t include the peep show booths that were a big part of recent litigation between the town and MEV. The federal complaint states that Clarksville Ministries has entered the sales agreement with the former owner and a lease agreement with property owner AMW Investments, Inc.

The filing states that the town has not yet granted the temporary license and that its ordinance states that a new business applicant shall be granted a temporary license when it meets all other criteria.

Scott Bergthold, a Tennessee-based attorney who, along with local attorney Greg Fifer, represent the town in recent litigation with Theatair X, says the town has not violated any part of their ordinance by not issuing a temporary license. He said the application was incomplete, and that Clarksville Ministries has been made aware of that since the federal filing Friday. He also added that the town has not seen any lease agreement that shows Clarksville Ministries will operate the business and that it is not clear who the current owner is.

Clarksville Ministries also filed a request for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to get the temporary license approved before the Clarksville Planning and Zoning commission hears Wednesday a change that could essentially prevent Theatair X, or any adult business, from operating at that site.

If the plan commission recommends the rezoning amendment to the town council, and if the council adopts it, Clarksville Ministries’ complaint says the business would not be able to open, as it would be 750 feet from Clarksville Lofts, which opened on U.S. 31 in September 2019 at the renovated Crest Motel.

Although the current zoning ordinance states that an adult business cannot be within 500 feet of certain types of other developments, the proposed amendment expands that to 750 feet from any PUD (Planned Urban Development), which Clarksville Lofts is designated as, as well as any child care center, religious institution, facility selling alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises or a school with most students under 18.

In an Aug. 25 letter to the Clarksville plan commission, Sanchez writes that the zoning amendment, if passed, would “significantly reduce the value of the property and prevent Clarksville’s LGBTQ+ community from having a safe place to shop that caters to their community,” according to the letter. She said it would also risk the more than $100,000 investment Clarksville Ministries has made in securing the business.

Bergthold said that while he couldn’t immediately say Tuesday whether the amendment would mean no Theatair X at its current location, he said the change had been in discussion for a long time.

“It’s been many years since the zoning ordinance was updated; it’s been contemplated for a long time,” he said, adding that “The goal is to provide the maximum protection against the secondary effects of adult uses by buffering certain land uses with the largest buffer that is available while at the same time making sure that we follow the First Amendment case law from the courts,” which means that the town can’t make laws that would not allow an adult business within its boundaries.

“We believe that this amendment accomplishes that,” Bergthold continued. “It both provides protection from the citizens and buffers against secondary effects and it also makes sure Clarksville is following constitutional requirements.”

The new owner’s license application came just days before an order issued by Clark County Judge Vicki Carmichael that MEV would lose its business license for a year as part of a separate civil case. MEV filed that complaint in 2019, after the town revoked Theatair X’s license based on multiple zoning code violations, including illegal sexual activity on the premises, as well as a suspension within the previous year.

A lot of that case had centered around what town attorneys said was the previous business’ allowance for sex acts to occur by having peep show booths which often had “glory holes” between them. It had remained open but with limited hours during the civil case until the judge’s order, and although MEV still holds a provisional license to remain open until the order is final, there are indications that the business is currently closed.

Sanchez said the new ownership won’t operate the peep show booths at all, to prevent any chance for that type of activity on the property. The federal complaint states that Clarksville Ministries intends to sell “various retail items intended for off-site consumption...[including] sexually-themed but non-obscene books, magazines and intimacy products, marital aids, wearing apparel, sexual aids, undergarments and novelties,” it reads, in part. “Ministries would further offer for viewing sexually-themed but non-obscene motion pictures for viewing in single theaters greater than 100 square feet in size.

”We literally just want to have retail sales,” Sanchez said in an email Monday. “The fact that the Town of Clarksville STILL wants to keep Theatair X from re-opening despite that concession is absolute proof that it’s just an anti-LGBT censorship attempt disguised as a simple zoning ordinance change.”

Sanchez’s letter to the plan commission further expands on what she says is the unlawful “moral crusade” by Tennessee-based attorney Scott Bergthold, who along with local attorney Greg Fifer have represented the town in the recent Theatair X lawsuits.

Bergthold said that was “Not true. Our firm has never had an LGBT case or matter and this business license was revoked for illegal conduct well before I ever got involved or hired by the Town of Clarksville,” he said. “And I can tell you that in none of the hundreds of discussions we have had over the years, with staff, in court or anywhere else has ever been any mention been made of anything related to sexual orientation or any of those issues, so that’s just baseless.”

Sanchez ended her letter to the planning commission that there are “many ways my business and the Town could work together to resolve our differences,” According to the letter, “The zoning amendments before you are a proposal for both sides to keep spending money on attorneys. My store will be fighting for the First Amendment and the LGBTQ community it serves. What exactly are you fighting for?”

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