On the Beat 11-9-2006

New Hotel or Maybe Dorm? Seems as though the Spearmint Rhino strip joint might give way to a 50-room budget hotel, or even a 100-unit City College dorm. At least that’s the thinking of property owner Bernie MacElhenny. When I called to check out a rumor, Bernie cheerfully claimed that he has preliminary city okay (the city denies this) to strip the Spearmint Rhino to the ground and build a hotel there on Montecito Street on the ocean side of the freeway. He’s even dubbed it Hotel Bernardo.

But nothing can happen until the lease is up in two years at the Rhino, where, I am informed, naked women dance around a maypole. Patrons in search of healthy beverages swill fruit juice, since the imbibing of strong drink would require state regulation of the joint. In California, the serving of sinful John Barleycorn involves strict measures, while the flaunting of naked flesh, lap dancing, and the like are entirely legal at the Rhino, which meets the city “visitor-serving” zoning as a juice bar.

Back in my days at the University of Illinois, my buddies and I would occasionally, solely in the interest of sociology studies, venture into the fleshpots of Calumet City, outside Chicago. Total nudity was not allowed. G-strings, now so passé, were the limit for dancers. Young women would approach our table with heartrending stories of having to work their way through college in order to become brain surgeons.

The Spearmint Rhino, even without liquor sales, is doing a bang-up business, according to Bernie, and the owner of the Rhino chain is begging him to renew. “They are really doing well.” Proof, perhaps, that you don’t need to drink to have fun.

But Bernie, always with an eye toward civic needs, said he prefers to build a budget hotel, with room rates of $100 to $120. In fact, he claimed, “the girls at city planning” were enthusiastically backing his plan because they detest the strip joint. But Bernie is holding back on the hotel plan because he wants the city to kick in $1.4 million. That’s the dough Bill Levy is putting up for budget housing as compensation for his plan to replace the California Hotel’s low-cost rooms with time-shares for the well-heeled. But the city, Bernie said, is somehow reluctant to hand over the money. Bernie said he’s also talking to an East Coast developer about using the land as a badly needed dorm for City College students (the Rhino women, I understand, often claim to be college students). On the other hand, Bernie said if the Spearmint Rhino guy comes up with enough dough-re-mi, he might even extend the lease. How else would all those college girls get through school?

But Paul Casey, city community development director, said that while Bernie submitted a preliminary application, which is a sort of “testing of the waters” to get planning department feedback, he hasn’t made a formal application for the hotel. A hotel is allowed under the visitor-serving zoning and “isn’t a bad concept,” Casey told me, but he sounded highly dubious about the city turning over the $1.4 million mitigation fee to Bernie. Casey said he’d heard about the dorm idea from City College people, but said there are zoning issues. So for the present, the women can keep dancing around the maypole and the guys can keep swarming the place in search of health-giving juice.

NP Candlelight Vigil: Santa Barbara movers and shakers attending the News-Press Lifetime Achievement awards dinner this Saturday night at the Biltmore will be greeted by a 5:15 p.m. candlelight vigil led by newsroom employees and friends. The vigil is “to protest the increasing attacks on journalists” under News-Press owner Wendy McCaw, the employees said. “In recent months, 28 journalists have left the News-Press because McCaw was interfering in the news and violating basic rules of journalism ethics. Thousands of readers have cancelled their subscriptions in protest.”

Craig Smith’s Top 10 Reasons Why Wendy McCaw Sued The Santa Barbara Independent:

10. She likes feral pigs better than Angry Poodles.

9. Was mad she never got invited to The Indy holiday party.

8. Wants to own a non-union paper.

7. Was afraid that the News-Press building would feel like a ghost town if all of her lawyers suddenly had to leave.

6. The Indy was threatening to scoop the News-Press on the next fresh basil shortage story.

5. Said to her lawyers, “Hey, break me off a piece of that copyright infringement action!”

4. Was pissed off when she found out the $100 million-plus she paid for the paper didn’t buy her the whole damn town too.

3. Wants to snatch the couch from Indy Editor-in-Chief Marianne Partridge’s office.

2. Thought that having her deposition taken would actually give her a chance to get out of the office and talk to somebody.

1. Wendy would rather make the news than print it.

You can reach Barney at 965-5205 or via He also writes a Tuesday online column at and Barney’s Weekend Picks on Fridays.

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