It's late afternoon on a weekday and there's not much action at Dreamz Massage.
A few men wearing business casual attire stroll up only to be turned away by manager Nikki Johnson because they were looking for sexual favors, not a legitimate massage.
Johnson, whose mother owns the massage business, says it is a typical day for the spa located four blocks east of the Strip on Sahara Avenue.
The real business comes later when hotel night-shift maids, crew members from Strip theater productions and tourists beat down from long hours sightseeing and partying are ready to unwind with a massage or sauna.
But she and her husband, Brian Johnson, can't make money off the late-night crowd because a new city ordinance aimed at cracking down on illegal prostitution requires massage businesses to close at 10 p.m.
They say the ordinance is misguided and does more to hurt their legitimate business than it does to thwart crooked operators from using the facade of massage to hide illegal prostitution.
"In the daytime we get more perverts than at night. I think they are doing this before they go home to their wives," Nikki Johnson said. "I don't believe that at 10 o'clock perverts come out."
DISPUTE MONTHS IN MAKING
The simmering dispute between the Johnsons and city of Las Vegas officials came to the fore publicly during a recent City Council meeting.
Appearing before the council for a temporary business license renewal, they sought an exception to the required closing time rule, a mandate created in December in response to concerns about the toll that forced prostitution and human trafficking take on women who work in massage parlors that are little more than fronts for brothels.
The council voted unanimously to extend the temporary license, but refused to make an exception to new rules about closing time.
"We put a lot of time and effort into constructing an ordinance that will deal with massage parlors to make sure they are not fronts for prostitution and trafficking, and one of the big deals was the hours," said Mayor Pro Tem Stavros Anthony, a retired Metropolitan Police Department vice cop who sponsored the ordinance. "There is no way that I would extend the hours beyond 10 p.m."
Ward 3 Councilman Bob Coffin, who represents the area where Dreamz operates, said the store is too close to residential neighborhoods to accommodate late-night business.
Dreamz is in an area marked by pawn shops, check cashing and short-term loan businesses, and low-cost apartments. Nearby is a residential neighborhood that Coffin said would be disrupted by all-night massage traffic, although the area includes a tavern that is open 24 hours a day.
"We're not going to take anybody's license away," Coffin said. "There is the main question of early morning hours in a business that abuts against neighborhoods in an area where there is a lot of crime in an occupation where there is a temptation to have crime."
Mayor Carolyn Goodman told the Johnsons that if they wanted to continue offering massages after 10 p.m. they could switch to an outcall model and dispatch therapists to offices, hotel rooms or homes for treatment sessions.
Goodman said an outcall model would be better than changing the rules to accommodate one business, even if it is a legitimate one. City records show there are about five dozen businesses operating under the "massage establishment" licenses similar to Dreamz.
"This is precedent-setting," Goodman said. "We have so many massage parlors, if we were to change things for you it only goes to show we would have to change things for everybody."
'THIS IS MY FAMILY'S BUSINESS'
While the Johnsons understand why efforts are being made to reduce harm from illegal prostitution and human trafficking, they say all that's happening in their case is harassment of a legitimate business.
The tension between city officials and the couple dates back more than a month to their launch of Dreamz Massage, which they advertise as an affordable spa experience that's close to the Strip.
It started when Nikki Johnson's mother, Siriat Krabuanrat, bought the business at 430 E. Sahara Ave. from Jinli Ran, who was operating a massage business called Shangri La Health Clinic, among others.
Ran had clashed with the city before over massage businesses where police arrested workers for prostitution.
The Johnsons, who manage the business for Krabuanrat, said they're being blamed for transgressions that occurred when Ran had the business. They also said Nikki Johnson's heritage makes her a target of officials acting based on stereotypes about Asian women and the illegal sex trade.
They cite as evidence numerous visits from city officials that have found, at most, minor code violations but no evidence of wrongdoing.
Nikki Johnson also said she felt the City Council, which includes the mayor who cut her off during the council meeting, showed anti-Asian bias.
"I did feel that," she said. "They were saying all these things that were negative and I couldn't even comment. This is my family's business. I want my kids to have this. Why would I do anything negative?"
NIGHT OWLS NEED THERAPY, TOO
The couple's biggest frustration with their city experience, and one shared by some customers, is that the new rules covering hours of operation punish people whose only crime is keeping unusual hours. And in Las Vegas, especially near the massive, 24-7 resorts on the Strip, forcing a business to close at 10 p.m. can be a death knell.
During Dreamz's first two weeks of operation it was opened until 3 a.m. and the Johnsons said they quickly built positive buzz with stagehands, bartenders, waitresses, maids and others with physically demanding jobs and shifts that end in the middle of the night.
Brian Johnson said the business earned more money between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. than it earns during all other hours combined.
"If we don't get an extension, I'll be closed within a month," he told the council. "The daytime does not pull in what we need to cover. It is barely paying the rent for that space and utilities."
Customers appreciate the late hours, too. Poker player Linda Drucker, 61, said she took down the number for Dreamz one day when she drove past and decided to give it a try a few weeks later after a night of poker.
Drucker, who had a career in the gambling industry before retiring, said it can be difficult for people with late hours to find good services.
She visited Dreamz with trepidation at first given the reputation of the area for having shady massage businesses, some of which are open late because their licenses predate the new rules.
She was glad she gave it a try.
"They have been nothing but fresh and bright and clean and clear and very, very nonsexual," Drucker said.
Drucker, who lives in the northwest, said not only did she get a relaxing massage by a professional therapist, she also was able to use a Dreamz shower to wash away residual smoke smells from the casino.
"What a beautiful thing to be able to have a massage after playing poker and before going home," she said.
Bartender Julio Berrios, 26, said he, too, appreciates the option of getting a late-night massage after long shifts on his feet.
He said massage treatment for a leg injured when he was hit by a taxi is a big improvement from painkillers doctors recommended he use.
"I don't trust them," Berrios said of pain pills, which can be addictive and impair motor skills. "I just go get a massage and I don't have to put my body in the way of any harm."
He said the treatment he received at Dreamz prompted him to recommend it to his girlfriend, who is a cocktail waitress. Berrios described it as a pleasant environment for shift workers looking to wind down from the fast pace of the Strip resorts.
"Everyone is nice in there, the music, how they take care of you," he said. "You feel like you are at home. It doesn't even feel like it is in Vegas when you are in there."
Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0285.