Ma Miller’s Pub hopes exotic entertainment will help flagging fortunes

“We’ve been hearing from the neighbourhood,” Langford Coun. Lillian Szpak said. “They’re very concerned.”

With a Hail Mary pass into hostile territory the operator of Ma Miller’s Pub in Langford is turning to strippers for salvation.

“Basically I’m in survival mode right now,” said Dale Stephenson, who signed a four-year lease to run the pub about 18 months ago.

“It’s all or nothing now.”

The pub’s liquor licence lists Tirso Holdings Ltd. as the owner (Tony Piga is named on the pub’s website), with a third party operating the pub. The current zoning allows Stephenson to bring in exotic entertainment without having to go to the municipality.

“I’ve been a straight and open book, as far as why I’m doing this,” said Stephenson, who grew up in the neighbourhood and admits this is his last stab at making a go of it before he gives up on the pub.

“My main reason (for turning to exotic dancers) is to bring in new clientele.”

Stephenson has pegged June 20 as the first day the pub will offer exotic entertainment. He expects a diverse crowd, ranging from construction workers to lawyers. He also thinks women will make up a larger percentage of customers than some might think. And while that may be the case, a strip club in the middle of a residential neighbourhood isn’t sitting well with some Langford residents.

“We’ve been hearing from the neighbourhood,” Langford Coun. Lillian Szpak said. “They’re very concerned.”

The change in use caught council off guard, she admits. However, even if council were to rezone the property, its existing use would continue to be permitted as long as it remained a pub.

“Basically, council would not approve this if this was a zoning that was coming in today,” she said. “But, having said that, council’s hands are tied at this point.”

Ma Miller’s is located at 2903 Sooke Lake Rd., across the street from Goldstream Park campground in “a beautiful setting,” Szpak said.

“It’s in an established neighbourhood with a school only two block away,” she said, adding it’s a far cry from the type of area normally associated with a strip club. “How is this OK? It’s not.”

One of the biggest concerns council has heard is that illegal activities such as drug dealing will follow in the wake of the change. “Of course, we have the RCMP that are much more aware of this now,” said Szpak, chair of the protective services committee. “Let’s face it, when you have a strip club going in you’re going to think the worst.”

Stephenson, who also owns an air conditioning installation company, dismisses concerns about crime. He’s brought in experienced staff and added security to keep illegal activity away from the property.

Those costs come with the territory when operating a pub that offers exotic dancers. And those costs are one of the reasons an established strip club operator says he would think twice before going into the business now.

Wally Meng, the owner of the Fox Showroom Pub in Saanich, said he wishes Ma Miller’s well but isn’t sure getting into the business is the best bet for a last ditch attempt at making money.

“We feel that the industry is down quite a bit,” Meng said, noting it can be expensive to convert a pub into a show lounge. “I don’t know if they’ll be able to achieve what they want.”

One of only two strip bars in Greater Victoria (Ma Miller’s will make it three), Meng said it’s a struggle just to keep business.

While there are no plans to change his operation at this time, Meng said he thinks the future lies in neighbourhood customers and, especially, food sales.

“If people can solve the transportation issue, I think they can survive many years.”

However, for residents living near Ma Miller’s, the idea of exotic dancers in their neighbourhood has left them shaking their heads.

“As far as strippers go, it’s just the wrong place,” said Terry Harkins, a longtime resident of the area and a former employee at the pub. “It’s the valley. It’s a lot of families and they’re all really friendly.”

Another neighbour, who asked that his name be withheld, said the pub’s management has alienated locals who were once the main clientele.

“It used to be a quiet place. We all went there for a drink in the afternoon,” said the 74-year-old, noting the pub seems to be aiming for a younger crowd looking for a party. “I don’t think many people are impressed.”

For his part, Stephenson said he can’t continue to lose money just to please the locals.

“When I took it over, it was an old dumpy bar,” he said. “I put a bunch of money into it and then the drink driving laws came in and from there (business) just dried up.”

He said he tried to focus on people within walking distance and he even offers a shuttle to provide a safe ride to patrons from as far away as View Royal.

But the bus has been underutilized and the locals who did patronize the bar simply didn’t spend enough.

“They can keep doing what they’ve been doing for the past year and keep driving by it,” a defiant Stephenson said. “Basically the community is going to have to get used to it. I gave them an opportunity to support my business and they did not.”

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