Clark County and Vancouver city officials are taking a look at local business licensing and exploring code changes to prevent illicit massage businesses from flourishing in Southwest Washington.
Shumway neighborhood leaders Lisa Ghormley, Michele Wollert and Anne McEnerny-Ogle, who is also a Vancouver city councilor, drew attention to the issue after a foot massage business moved into their neighborhood.
The neighbors suspected illegal activity at the business, including prostitution, and turned to the Vancouver Police Department for help. Vancouver police are now investigating the business after police allegedly found a woman practicing reflexology without a license, a misdemeanor, during an unannounced inspection.
The Columbian's front-page Sunday story, "Foot massage under suspicion," detailed the neighbors' suspicions and the police action at the Shumway business. The business closed in the days before The Columbian story was published.
"We haven't eliminated the problem," McEnerny-Ogle said Thursday. "We have moved it, and it will pop up somewhere else if it hasn't already."
Ghormley and Wollert took their concerns to the county commissioners' Tuesday meeting and asked the county to explore ways to crack down on illicit massage and reflexology businesses. On Monday, they plan to approach the Vancouver City Council.
"These businesses are going to settle where ordinances are lax," Wollert said Thursday. "I just don't want to see Clark County and Vancouver be a dumping ground for that."
Axel Swanson, the county's senior policy adviser, has already started working with the planning department to research other jurisdictions' codes pertaining to massage businesses.
Thurston County has implemented additional licensing requirements for massage parlors and public bath houses that may be an option in Clark County, Swanson said.
Thurston County requires fingerprints and two photos of the owner applying for a business license. The county also requires the owners to get documents notarized by the auditor's office. The documentation then goes to the sheriff's office for a background check, Swanson said.
Once issued, the business license is valid for only the listed location and must be prominently displayed in the business, he said.
In addition, Thurston County has built into its code more authority for its health department to conduct inspections of the businesses, Swanson said. State law authorizes unannounced inspections of massage and reflexology businesses.
"It's just that added presence," Swanson said.
Clark County has an adult entertainment code, which is pretty restrictive, and a general commercial code, Swanson said. While he doesn't want to make massage businesses subject to restrictions set for adult entertainment businesses, he does want to find a happy medium with more regulations than what's set in the general commercial code.
"We don't want to overburden those business owners and those people doing the right thing," Swanson said.
The county wants to work with local massage therapists and business owners on the changes, he said. Any code changes will go through a public process before going to the commissioners for approval. Swanson said he suspects the county will work on the issue through the spring.
Vancouver's community and economic development director, Chad Eiken, plans to have his staff look into the issue as well. Tightening up codes could make the proliferation of the businesses more difficult in the city of Vancouver, he said.
His staff will likely take up the issue this summer, Eiken said.
The neighbors who brought the issue to light are relieved city and county officials are responding to their concerns.
They plan to take everything they learned about state law and the limitations of health officials, police and landlords to other neighborhood leaders. They want to educate other neighborhood leaders so they can be vigilant in reporting the presence of other suspected illicit massage businesses.
"It's a risk for community livability," Wollert said. "We just don't want to be known as the community where people go to get off-menu services."