‘“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”—C.S. Lewis
I like to think most politicians, at least at the local level, enter politics for all the right reasons – a willingness to serve and be a good steward, coupled with a real desire to improve the lives of their neighbors. I also believe that most first-term elected officials have the best interest of all their constituents at heart, and they factor public opinion and popular will into the decision-making process, especially on matters involving the expenditure of public funds.
However, in some an ego-driven transition from public servant to self-important know-it-all takes place somewhere around their first re-election. Inexplicably, they mysteriously become morally superior to the rest of us and transmogrify into pious nannies with a God complex – convinced they know what’s best for the rest of us.
For example, a few years ago a pseudo-strip joint known as Cheaters Cabaret rented space near the I-95/U.S.-1 interchange, a long neglected stop-off for interstate travelers that has fallen into a down-at-the-heels shabbiness marked by abandoned commercial space, homeless camps and overgrowth.
Initially located in unincorporated Volusia County, Cheaters met all zoning and permitting regulations and was issued a business tax receipt to operate.
Although I never drank there, friends who did told me it wasn’t one of the ubiquitous highway “gentlemen’s clubs” or “Oriental Spas” that dot I-95; you know, those seedy re-purposed convenience stores with serial masturbators hunched in dark corners amid the stench of organized crime, cheap perfume and stale beer.
I’m told it was more of a funky bar scene with bikini-clad women gyrating to overly loud music as both a draw and distraction for a handful of hardcore drinkers. And if the occasional wardrobe malfunction flashed a bare nipple or two, well, no injuries were reported and I seriously doubt anyone outside the doors knew or cared.
For a good portion of my professional life I was charged with investigating vice crimes – and I got pretty good at it. On occasion I was farmed out to assist other jurisdictions and have spent countless hours in places that would make your skin crawl.
I’ve seen things in public restrooms, “massage” parlors and other dark places that have left indelible scars on my mind that Ajax won’t remove. I’m talking old school pimps, prostitutes and journeyman perverts with proclivities that would make the Marquis de Sade blush. I’ve seen first-hand the degradation of human trafficking and commercial pornography operations, and I have sent habitual sex offenders to prison who were worse than predatory animals – sub-human scum.
From what I know of it, on its worst day Cheaters Cabaret didn’t come close to any of this.
Apparently the true sin of this small business was offending the delicate sensibilities of Fred Costello, his followers (read voting bloc) in the “Faith Community,” and the Ormond Beach Economic Development Department.
In a November 2015 piece in the Ormond Beach Observer, Rep. Costello explains the genesis of the City’s very odd, very expensive, and very time consuming war on Cheaters:
Costello said the efforts to improve the U.S. 1 corridor began in earnest when the now defunct Cheaters night club opened in 2010.
“I contacted members of the faith community and said we need to stop this,” he said. Area churches protested the presence of the “gentlemen’s club.”
Eventually, the City Commission passed ordinances which ended the performances at the club and it shut down. It was also the existence of Cheaters that spurred the Coalition (“North U.S.-1 Coalition”) to action. “Business, government and the faith community all partnered together,” Costello said.
This “partnership” consisted of members of Costello’s Faith Community surveilling the parking lot and taking photographs of patrons and their vehicles in a cheap form of public shaming, choreographed protests, the City’s use of selective legislation, shutting off utilities, and the indiscriminate use of the City Attorney’s office.
Apparently the only thing the City didn’t do is drag out their dusty copy of the Malleus Maleficarum and charge the bikini-gals with Witchery.
Our own New Puritan Fred Costello, and later Mayor Ed Kelley, used the full force, might and treasure of the municipal government to crush a low-rent saloon that didn’t comport with their “vision” for the north U.S.-1 commercial corridor? Really?
Interestingly, at about the same time the Great Cheaters Inquisition was underway, the “North U.S.-1 Coalition” – a business group now headed by Maryam Ghyabi, the sister of master power broker and real estate developer extraordinaire Mori Hosseini – and a few other movers-and-shakers put together $20,000 as a good faith pledge to beautify Ormond’s Grand Gateway.
This amount was ultimately matched by the City of Ormond Beach, and Volusia County, in furtherance of pursuing a $500,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation – which, miraculously, was later increased to $750,000 – for beautification of the U.S.-1 median strips.
You read that right. $750,000.00. For landscaping. Medians. . .
In a 2015 news article the Ormond Beach Chamber of Commerce’s own Peggy Farmer remarked (with an apparent straight face), “I think Maryam Ghyabi had a lot to do with that,” Farmer said. “She knows so many people at FDOT.”
All this sweet, sweet cash on top of last year’s promise by FDOT to spend nearly $900,000 to beautify the same I-95 interchange. AND we got our eleventh (count ‘em) Dollar Store out of the deal!
Gosh. All’s well that ends well, right?
What a bright and happy ending for all concerned – unless you happen to run a bikini bar or have an interest on U.S.-1 that doesn’t conform to “The Vision.”
Move along. Nothing more to see here folks – our intrepid and visionary leaders have saved us from ourselves and put the iron boot to some unfortunate ugliness that was occurring on the outskirts of town.
You’re safe now. Go about your lives in peace and harmony. The witch is dead.
But is that really the end of the story? I dunno, something keeps bugging me. . .
Being the paranoid, brooding weirdo that I am, when things don’t add up I sit in the dark, smoke cigarettes, and ask myself the deeper question: Qui Bono?
Are these self-righteous politicians and well-connected insiders really looking out for my best interests, or is there something larger at play?
Did Fred Costello really mobilize the faith community of Ormond Beach to run Mephistopheles off of U.S.-1 – or were they used as hapless dupes; rubes in a greater strategy to remove impediments to something much more lucrative and substantial than another Dollar General?
And now that Cheaters has been waxed, who’s next?
Were our elected and appointed officials in Ormond Beach really willing to burn through tens of thousands of our hard-earned tax dollars just to run some chintzy bar out of business?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that the City of Ormond Beach and Tomoka Holdings, LLC – a wholly-owned subsidiary of the massive energy conglomerate ALLETE, Inc. – are poised to resume progress on a little pet project of Fred’s called Ormond Crossings. A sprawling mixed-use development that will bring some 3,000 homes and five million square feet of commercial space to the vicinity of the same I-95/U.S.-1 interchange.
It’s being billed as the “Future of Ormond Beach.”
I’m no expert, but I bet you a few folks stand to make a fortune. . .