In the heart of changing South End, a strip club lives on

In the heart of changing South End, a strip club lives on
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There’s a stretch in South End where $30 buys you a surprising range of goods. A bootcamp workout, a short haircut, a small decorative pillow or a lap dance and a cocktail.

Yes, one of those purchases is unlike the others.

Amid the breakneck change in the formerly industrial neighborhood — where hip retailers, luxury apartments and new office towers have driven up property values, and longstanding local icons like Mr. K’s, Phat Burrito and Price’s Chicken Coop have closed — one locally owned establishment lives on:

  • Leather & Lace, a strip club that’s operated on South Boulevard for more than three decades.

Behind the business is MAL Entertainment, which the Observer described in 2014 as “one of the largest strip club enterprises in the Southeast.” Industry mogul David “Slim” Baucom started MAL in 1987 with Leather & Lace on South. In the years since then, the chain has expanded to 12 clubs, including Leather & Lace locations in Gastonia and University City.

Why it matters: Leather & Lace is one of the oldest surviving local businesses in South End. As the neighborhood has changed, so too has the club, which Baucom says has helped it endure.

  • Leather & Lace’s evolution has come in the form of simple pivots like playing popular music (“if it were up to me we’d play nothing but Motown,” says Baucom, 66) as well as more involved upgrades, like the  big renovation the club got last year.

For years, Baucom had been planning to give Leather & Lace a makeover; the pandemic just provided a convenient time for it because of the mandated closure. Previously, the place looked outdated, he says, and it had no curb appeal.

“We realized we stuck out like a sore thumb next to all this new development,” Baucom says.

The overhaul included interior finishes, like new flooring and a fresh paint job, plus exterior upgrades like new signage and windows.

Baucom estimates the project cost a few hundred thousand dollars — a sizable chunk for a business that in a normal year brings in about $750,000. During the pandemic, though, revenue completely dried up.

Leather & Lace

Leather & Lace in South End. Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios.

Last spring, MAL Entertainment was part of a group that sued the state because of the shutdown orders. A federal judge ruled against them, saying they lacked the same “urgency” as restaurants to reopen, as the Raleigh News & Observer reported. So the Leather & Lace on South remained closed for 14 months, from March 2020 to May 2021.

  • The club has made headlines for other controversies. Last year, Alcohol Law Enforcement penalized Leather & Lace on South after a sting operation that found dancers drinking and doing drugs on the job, as the Charlotte Ledger reported.
  • Also last year, before the pandemic, a former dancer sued the club, saying management shorted her pay, per the Observer.

Despite legal troubles, over time, Leather & Lace appears to have benefited from South End’s evolution. Today, foot traffic brings in roughly 30% of Leather & Lace’s overall traffic, Baucom says. And these days, women and couples make up a growing portion of the club’s customer base, he adds.

  • That’s a far cry from years ago, when the club had no foot traffic, and when the vast majority of its customers were men.

“People’s mindsets have changed,” Baucom says. “It’s just another form of entertainment in Charlotte. It’s not seen as another seedy strip club, which might have been the case 30 years ago.”

Zoom out: Leather & Lace sits directly across South from Atherton Mill, a former cotton mill property the firm Edens spent $100 million redeveloping into high-end apartments and retail. Elsewhere in South End, which is quickly becoming the hottest office submarket in the nation, cranes are everywhere:

  • A few years ago, the eight-story Dimensional Fund Advisors office building took the spot on Camden where the Food Truck Friday lot was, along with Common Market’s original South End location.
  • Down the street, Lowe’s is in the midst of building a 23-story state-of-the-art tech hub, where it’ll employ up to 2,000 people.
  • Around the corner, The Spectrum Cos. recently finished construction on LendingTree’s sleek new headquarters.
  • Across the light rail, Portman Holdings is building a 16-story tower called The Line on the Shook Kelley site. It’ll house Sycamore Brewing, plus several other tenants.
  • Where Sauceman’s used to be on West Boulevard, Beacon Partners is constructing The Square at South End. The 10-story project will have offices, apartments, retail, and an outdoor plaza.

View of Uptown from LendingTree’s new headquarters in South End. Photo: Katie Peralta Soloff/Axios

MAL Entertainment doesn’t own the property the club sits on. The family behind Mr. K’s does, and they have for decades. The family didn’t respond to a request for comment about the future of the property, but Adam Williams of Legacy Real Estate Advisors says that family ownership of such a desirable piece of property in South End is increasingly rare.

  • Williams handles leasing all over South End, including in the building adjacent to Leather & Lace, former home of Owen’s Bagels that now includes popular chains like Snooze AM Eatery and Silverlake Ramen.
  • “If there is a non-institutionally owned piece of property in South End, there are people interested in it,” Williams says.

Mr. K’s closed this year, and a Florida chain called The Crust Pizza is moving in, as CBJ reported. But Leather & Lace isn’t planning on going anywhere, Baucom says.

“(Our landlord) signed a long-term lease for us, so we plan on being there for a while.”

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