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By BOB VON STERNBERG - Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune


When a group of business owners in a town in Minnesota's Iron Range decided to call their new summer festival Whorehouse Days, they figured the name alone would guarantee publicity that no amount of money could buy.

It did just that, attracting attention for Gilbert, Minn., from as far away as Scotland. But the name, a nod to Gilbert's notorious early years as a red-light district, also turned out to be the festival's undoing.

Offended by the word "whorehouse," local residents mounted a loud backlash against the festival and recently spurred Gilbert City Council members to kill the two-day bash that was to have been held for the first time this weekend.

But that may not be the end of the line for Whorehouse Days. The organizers, who call themselves Gilbert After Hours Inc., say they are planning to try again next summer. And in the meantime, they're hunting for a lawyer.

Members of the group recently posted this on their Web site: "The all-powerful City Council of Gilbert has decided to not rent us the public buildings we need for this event. We are taxpaying citizens of the community and feel we are being discriminated against. ... We are currently looking for an attorney that is not afraid of (or connected to) the city government of Gilbert."

"The nice thing about America is that they can do that if they want to," said Gilbert Mayor Bob Garrity. "I've checked with the city attorney and the (National) League of Cities and no one says we did anything wrong."

Don't tell that to Bob Cap, the lead organizer of Whorehouse Days. "The City Council's acting like it's the Moral Majority or something," he said. "They really played a number on us."

Cap makes no bones about the fact that Whorehouse Days was chosen as a deliberately provocative name.

"It was an obvious marketing tool," he said. "We figured the shock value would cause some people to say, 'Hey, let's go check that out.' "

The name also is historically accurate. In the early years of the 20th century, Gilbert was known far and wide among lumberjacks and miners as a hotbed of saloons and prostitution.

Whorehouse Days was supposed to include a four-poster bed race, a best-dressed madam contest, competitive beer-mug sliding along an outdoor bar and a performance of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Gilbert." All of the activities would have been rated G or PG, organizers vowed.

In the days leading up to the scheduled celebration, organizers had attracted nearly $50,000 in sponsorships and were starting to fill up nearby hotels with weekend reservations, Cap said. But to pull it off, they needed the use of several city buildings. And that, it turned out, was a problem.

About one-third of the city's businesses signed a petition against Whorehouse Days and dozens of opponents turned out at council meetings to protest the name. Feeling the heat, council members decided to kill it.
 
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