A complete rebuild or renovation is in the bathhouse’s near future
After 42 years in the same location, several expansions into adjacent buildings and a number of cosmetic makeovers, Club Dallas will either undergo a major renovation or rebuild on the same location, according to its manager Josh Smith.
“We’ll be undergoing some sort of change in the near future,” Smith said. “These are old buildings.”
Smith said he loves architecture and if there was anything architecturally significant about the buildings, his vote would be to renovate.
“If there was some historical substance, we’d save them,” he said.
But these buildings were simply warehouse or manufacturing buildings when they were build more than 50 years before Club Dallas opened in 1974.
Features like a large indoor hot tub has wreaked havoc on the ceilings, especially in the main building. Smith said he’s constantly dealing with leaks and other problems and simply needs new air conditioning and steam rooms and would love to replace the aging pool.
As Deep Ellum has exploded with development, real estate developers have shown interest in purchasing the property. The owners, who would like their business to continue operating as their legacy, have no interest in selling. Especially considering how good business has been.
When Smith became general manager four years ago, he was determined to attract new customers by rooting out drugs and physically cleaning the place up.
Because social media apps have made bars and bathhouses less of a necessity for gay men to meet, Smith said he needed to give people a reason to come.
He’s done that by providing a clean, safe club. Younger people who come to Club Dallas for the first time regularly tell Smith and his staff that they thought it would be dark and sleazy and were surprised by what they’ve found.
In 2010, police raided Club Dallas and arrested 11 people for lewd behavior. District Attorney Craig Watkins ruled that the facility was a private club and threw out all the charges.
But Club Dallas was on the verge of being labeled a nuisance business.
Since then, Smith has worked with police especially in the area of drug enforcement.
“I’ve never viewed the police as an adversary,” Smith said.
He said he’s called LGBT police liaison Laura Martin at 4 a.m. a number of times and she’s been very helpful to him.
“That raid wouldn’t happen now,” Smith said.
Currently, the gym facility accounts for about a quarter of the business at club Dallas. That’s down from when the gym was first installed. During the height of the AIDS crisis, gyms were discriminating against gay men because of wide misunderstanding of how the HIV virus was spread.
“We were the judgment-free zone before Planet Fitness became the judgment-free zone,” Smith said.
Working out was important for people living with HIV because it was one of the few defenses to keep people healthy longer. Now, he said, most new apartment complexes have gyms and large chains have branches throughout the city. Fewer people need to drive to Club Dallas just for the gym.
Business at Club Dallas has been steadily increasing. In the past 18 months, the number of people under the age of 25 has increased by 150 percent. Each month has been setting sales records with July the biggest month in the club’s history.
In September, Dallas will host the three-day North American Bathhouse Association meeting. Owners and managers from across the country meet to discuss best practices, preferred vendors, promotions and advertising.
Dallas Voice owner Leo Cusimano will be speaking at the convention. Club Dallas is the only advertiser that has appeared in every issue of Dallas Voice.
Smith said he campaigns to get other bathhouse owners to clean up and change their image. That’s good for all other businesses, he said. If someone has a bad experience at one bathhouse, they’re unlikely to try out another. But a good experience at one translates into more business for everyone, he said.
Smith said as they plan whether to renovate or rebuild, his goal is to create a pleasant, relaxing atmosphere and “attract the next generation.”
But the next generation mostly uses phone apps.
“We have wifi,” Smith said. “So you can use your phone here, make your connection online and it’s safer to meet here.”
Club Dallas History
Club Dallas was founded in 1974 by J.W. Campbell and a group of investors. Today, three of those original owners remain: Dennis Holding, Wayne Schrebe and Lyle Black. The current ownership group also includes Mark Craven and Josh Smith.
The Clubs chain at one time had as many as 40 locations. Today, there are seven facilities in The Clubs chain, located in Dallas, Houston, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio.
The ownership group became more health focused and The Clubs added gyms to their facilities as a response to the AIDS epidemic. They wanted to give gay men shunned at other gyms over fear of HIV a place to work out and get fit. The gyms still place a large role in The Clubs facilities today, and clubs also provide free condoms and HIV/STD screenings weekly.
The North American Bathhouse Association was founded in 2010 by Jeff Wodicki, an insurance agent who had several bathhouses as clients and wanted to bring competing entities together to work as one group to find better ways to purchase things like insurance and legal services, as well as other services and goods.
As membership has increased — 60-75 attendees are expected at this year’s convention, set for Sept. 25-27 in Dallas — the organization’s goals have changed to focus more on addressing day-to-day operations-oriented topics. Bathhouse managers from around North America attend the convention each year to share ideas.
Today, the main focus of NABA is cleaning up the image of bathhouses and growing the industry in today’s App-focused world.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 5, 2016.