- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 4, 2004

COLUMBUS, Ga. - The dancers still twist around the brass pole at the Cellars Lounge. But their tips have dropped to almost nothing, and their boss wonders how much longer the business can survive now that it has been declared off-limits to its most loyal customers — soldiers from nearby Fort Benning.

Cellars was one of eight local businesses — three motels, two lounges, two dance clubs and a sports bar — that the Army has banned, citing concerns about drugs, prostitution and violence.

The off-limits designation can be a death sentence for a business that depends on soldiers. Some of the owners, such as Cellars proprietor Sherry Melton, said they were shocked at the news and still haven’t received official notification, but added that they will work to correct any problems.

“I’m a veteran, too, and we support the military,” said the club’s disc jockey, Jimmy Walden. “To think that we would do something to hurt the soldiers shatters our feelings.”

Miss Melton and other business owners said they develop close bonds with the young soldiers and treat them like family. Some owners say they often paid cab fare for soldiers who were either too drunk to drive or too broke to pay. One said he even has persuaded two soldiers not to go absent without leave.

About three-fourths of Miss Melton’s customers are soldiers, including many who have fought in Iraq.

“We’ve had them come from the desert with tears in their eyes,” she said. “They grab me and hug me with their bags still on their shoulders. They’re like our kids.”

Army officials say the off-limits orders handed down June 29 were based on police reports.

Columbus police records show that one of the establishments, the Boom-Boom Room, had a history of criminal activity from April 2003 to May 2004. Stanley Swanson, 23, was fatally shot in its parking lot in May. Police charged two other soldiers with his killing.

“We’re obligated to take care of the welfare of our soldiers and family members,” said Army spokesman Rich McDowell. “In the past, we’ve looked at auto-repair shops, dog kennels, real-estate dealers and car dealers. We investigate, and if they are ripping off soldiers or presenting an unsafe place to recreate, then we’ll put them off-limits.”

During two weekend sweeps last month, Columbus and military police officers hauled off at least eight soldiers who ignored the ban. They face fines, extra duties or restriction to post for disobeying a lawful order.

Cellars and four other establishments were placed off-limits by a military disciplinary control board that considers the suitability of area businesses for military personnel. Fort Benning’s commander, Brig. Gen. Benjamin Freakly, banned the three others.

Miss Melton said her club was placed off-limits because a soldier reportedly bought drugs from one of her employees, even though the club has a strict anti-drug policy. She since has posted a large sign out front that says, “Dear Ft. Benning. We do not sell drugs at Cellars Lounge.”

“It’s not just me losing money,” she said. “It’s the girls who dance. They work for tips.”

Cellars is located on Victory Drive, a street lined with title-pawn shops, tattoo parlors, motels, liquor stores and strip clubs, all catering to soldiers. Three other banned businesses — Gold Lounge, the Candlelight Motel and the Ponderosa Motel — are also on the street.

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