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A doublewide mobile home was set up on the site of Ilusion Spa on Thursday, replacing a smaller trailer that was destroyed in a suspicious fire in June.
Daily photo by Ronnie Thomas
A doublewide mobile home was set up on the site of Ilusion Spa on Thursday, replacing a smaller trailer that was destroyed in a suspicious fire in June.

Spa reopening at Lacey's
One controversial business on its way out, another returns; neighbors, law watching

By Ronnie Thomas 340-2438

LACEY'S SPRING — It's no illusion.

A doublewide mobile home sits here at 1138 U.S. 231, where fire destroyed Illusion Spa on June 30.

And it's an upgrade. The original structure was a singlewide of about 1,600 square feet, Illusion owner Ann Mcelhaney of Huntsville said for a previous story. Her new digs appear to be at least 2,500 square feet.

She beat her own deadline for resurrecting the business, saying Monday that she might be placing a building at the site within the next week. Workers set up the trailer Thursday, two days after residents gathered at Bethlehem Baptist Church to discuss such ventures, which they claim are fronts for prostitution.

While Illusion was preparing to reopen, the parking lot at the other controversial spa, Top Notch, a mile south at 603 U.S. 231 near the Whitesburg Bridge, was empty Friday and no activity appeared to stir inside. Joe and Diane Williams, owners of the building, won an eviction judgment Tuesday in Morgan County District Court and are selling the property.

Dale and Kathy Webster of Huntsville are in the process of closing on the site, where they will transfer their lawn, garden, sprinkling system and landscape business.

Ending a phone call

Mcelhaney had just begun a telephone interview with The Daily on Friday afternoon, which she abruptly ended, saying she had to pick up a grandchild. Before departing, she said, "I'm not sure what we're going to put there yet, maybe tanning beds. Call me back in 10 minutes." She was unavailable later.

One thing that's reasonably certain, whether she installs tanning beds only or a combination of beds and what she formerly offered, hot-tub rentals, Lacey's Spring citizens and Morgan County sheriff's officers will be watching.

Sheriff Greg Bartlett spoke at Tuesday's church meeting and said, "Any establishment that opens up, we'll be there to make sure that they follow the law."

He also told about 80 residents that they could help close down illegal activities by keeping the pressure on the johns and running off customers.

"Stay focused. If you see suspicious activity, call an officer," he said. "We'll keep enough patrol in there to make it uncomfortable for them. We're not going to turn our back on the community."

He also suggested photographing or videotaping people entering and leaving the premises of suspect businesses.

"You can't harass people," he said. "Don't go onto the property. Shoot from across the road and turn the photos or film over to a narcotics officer. At that point, we'll start building cases against the establishment and determining it it's suspicious activity. Give us enough probable cause to begin an investigation and find out if any illegal activities are occurring inside."

Bartlett spoke about officers running two stings at Illusion. He said on the second sting, they arrested two women for prostitution.

"The first time, an officer paid to get in a hot tub with a female," he said. "That isn't illegal. But the second time, the ladies crossed the line."

He said that five deputies and five officers from Decatur police took part in both operations, which cost about $10,000. He said building the case required about 70 hours per officer, including surveillance, audiotaping and videotaping.

"The women went to court, pled guilty, spent 15 days in jail and paid a $1,000 fine," he said. "That isn't much of a deterrence. New legislation making prostitution a felony would help us more than anything would. For example, if we bust someone for selling dope, we can file with the state and the courts to seize their property and sell it. That gets them where it hurts. For prostitution, there is no law to seize the property from the owner of the building."

No license needed

Bartlett said suspect spas spring up in the county because operators don't have to buy a business license, which Morgan Sales Tax Collector Ed Sims confirmed. He said spas are a service and that Title 40 of the Alabama Code does not license service businesses in the county.

"That's the same for people who clean buildings or mow yards," he said. "A landscaping business is different because it adds to or takes away from real property, forming and shaping the land. That requires a contractor's license or a professional license. We call them all privilege licenses."

But Sims said the county would license spas if they sold, for example, T-shirts or lotions because such items are tangible personal property.

It's different with municipalities, which have much broader laws, explained RonneHarvelle,revenue administrator for the city of Decatur.

"We have the authority to license anyone engaged in business in the city," he said. "We don't have to have a statute that specifies service or retail. Anyone engaged in business in the city must have a Decatur business license."

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