The Runway, an 'adult cabaret,' sets its sights on Airport Road

Tom McLaughlin

DESTIN — Veterinarian Kelly Haeusler was surprised last week when she discovered the lot next to her Airport Road clinic had sold the year before for about $150,000 more than its appraised value.

Her shock turned to outrage when she learned through a little research that the new owners have plans to open an adult entertainment facility there.

“I want my neighbors, my town, my community to know,” she said. “I want help. I want moral outrage.”

Moral outrage might be all residents or the City Council, which in 2009 went through a protracted battle to fend off topless dancing in a commercial district, will be able to accomplish this time around.

When the city drew up an ordinance regulating “sexually oriented businesses,” it was sued in federal court by Terry Stephenson, who was battling them at the time to have topless dancing allowed at a Mountain Drive bar called the Oasis.

Stephenson claimed essentially that the Oasis should be grandfathered in under statutes that existed when he announced his plans for adult entertainment.

The issue was settled through mediation and Stephenson’s Mountain Drive business was precluded from allowing topless dancing, but in return Destin was forced to agree to allow adult entertainment in areas of the city zoned for industrial use.

A small portion of Airport Road is one of only two areas in the city carrying the industrial zoning.

Stephenson, who was shot to death in 2010 outside of a strip club he ran in Atlanta, had vowed to find a piece of property on Airport Road to use for adult entertainment.

He never had the chance, but it appears some associates of Stephenson are behind the renewed effort to open what’s being called “an adult cabaret.”

The Runway, as it is called in a “project summary” quoted by Haeusler, is envisioned as a 5,625-square-foot, two-story facility built at 908 Airport Road, the former site of a business called Pottery World.

Tentative site plans prepared last June by Emerald Coast Associates of Santa Rosa Beach say The Runway will have an occupancy load of 191 with parking for less than 40.

The property is just west of the Destin Airport, not far from Kell-Air Gardens residential subdivision.

Red Brick Construction LLC bought the former pottery store for $360,000, nearly $150,000 more than the $205,727 listed as its value by the Okaloosa County property appraiser.

The Florida Department of State’s Division of Corporations lists Red Brick Construction’s principal address as 1126 Ponce De Leon Ave. in Atlanta. That is the same address that the Oasis of Destin Inc. and its partner company, Trident, call home.

Efforts to speak to Larry White, whom corporate documents list as an Atlanta associate of Stephenson, were unsuccessful.

Destin Community Development Director Ken Gallander said representatives of the group seeking to build The Runway have made no secret of their intention to establish Destin’s first adult entertainment nightclub.

“Oh absolutely,” he responded when asked if the representatives had discussed the nature of the business they want to open.

“They’re not hiding anything,” Gallander said.

Thus far, representatives of the development group have had three “pre-application meetings” with city officials, according to Gallander and Larry Beat, the administrative assistant of Destin’s planning division.

Those occurred around the time of the property sale in December 2011, and in June and October of last year.

Beat said the pre-application meetings consist primarily of “here’s what we want to do” and “here’s how we want to get there.” Discussions between the city and builder won’t solidify until the builder submits plans and applies for a development order.

Beat said he’s been expecting the development group to drop off plans and submit an application for a development order, and he is a little surprised at how long that has taken.

He said once the development order application is in, it should be just a matter of months before construction would begin — given the project receives approval.

“Clearly, citizens will voice their concerns,” he said.

As planning progresses, notice will be sent to all businesses and residents within 300 feet of a proposed development letting them know construction is occurring, Beat said. That notice would not, however, advise anyone what type of commerce is being conducted at a particular location.

Because of the size business it is, Beat said, The Runway could conceivably have been approved, constructed and opened without any official notice going out to the Destin City Council — though notification of what type of business The Runway would be would likely be posted on the city website.

Contacted Monday, council members Jim Wood and Tuffy Dixon had no information about the latest effort to open an adult entertainment establishment in Destin.

“Nobody’s mentioned it. I’m sure it will be soon,” said Tuffy Dixon.

Dixon, a new council member, was as aware as the city staff members that in the end, so long as The Runway exists within the strict confines of the Sexually Oriented Businesses Ordinance, there’s nothing anyone in the city will be able to do to prevent its existence.

“If they follow the settlement agreement, they’re in compliance,” he said. “We have to abide by that. It’s a federal court order.”

Haeusler said she learned of the property sale Friday, when she inquired about buying the lot she shares with Pottery World to add parking space at her Airport Veterinary Clinic.

She said she looked through the settlement agreement herself, searching for some evidence of underhanded dealing. She found none.

Haeusler said she too realizes she may very well have an “adult cabaret” as a next-door neighbor, but she also figures a little community outrage can go a long way.

“I just want people to know so there can be a public discussion about it,” she said.  

Contact Daily News Staff Writer Tom McLaughlin at 850-315-4435 or Follow him on Twitter @TomMnwfdn.