The potential return of the Mouse’s Ear Exotic Sports Bar in Gray will likely face an uphill battle once the investigation into the cause of an early morning fire last week that gutted the strip club is completed.
Business owner Ralph Browning said he has every intention of rebuilding the longstanding establishment, which is located off Tenn. Highway 36 near Bobby Hicks Highway.
“We plan on trying to reopen. I just have to wait until the insurance people are finished ... to check about what I can do,” he said Saturday afternoon from the Mouse’s Ear location in Knoxville.
Browning said he would like to be open in time for the spring races, but he acknowledged it was unrealistic given the extent of the damage and any possible hurdles he would have to overcome when it came time to rebuild.
“As far as right now, we’re just having to evaluate it and see where to go from here,” he said.
County Attorney John Rambo said Friday that no commissioners have come forward seeking legal advice about how they can be assured the business will not be resurrected. He also said Browning has not approached the county about getting a building permit.
“That property is not zoned for the business activity that was occurring at the premises before the fire,” Rambo said. “My presumption is the owners want to attempt to rebuild, but county zoning laws would not permit it.”
In the late 1990s, before current county zoning ordinances were in place, the business was “grandfathered in.” Now, the amount of damage would determine whether the owner could rebuild in the same location.
“Washington County could deny a building permit if it is determined that 75 percent or more of the structure would have to be rebuilt,” he said “That’s the threshold. And in this case, they would not be allowed to locate there.”
Browning said he would have to look into the legality of rebuilding the Mouse’s Ear once the insurance company has completed its assessment.
“Under the grandfather clause I have certain provisions, so that’s something (we will look at). Like I say, we’re not even there yet. Can’t do anything about it,” he said.
Washington County Commissioner Roger Nave said that he, Mark Larkey and Mike Ford — the three commissioners who serve the district encompassing Gray — will work to get the full County Commission in agreement to keep the establishment from rising from the ashes.
“The three of us feel like it’s an eyesore,” Nave said. “It’s down, and it needs to stay down.”
That’s a road Browning said he would cross when he got to it.
“I’ll deal with that when I come to it,” he said.