Bill Hanna has been editor of the Mesabi Daily News for 30 years, so he figured he’d seen it all — at least all that’s likely to happen on Minnesota’s Iron Range. The current hot topics include the PolyMet mine controversy and the new highway bridge over an ore pit.

“But I never thought I’d be covering sex parties at the hotel pool,” said Hanna.

That changed shortly after Halloween, when a local pastor appeared during a City Council meeting to tell seemingly stunned officials that there have been sex parties going on, regularly, for quite some time at Virginia’s Coates Plaza Hotel, “in the heart of downtown Virginia.”

The Rev. Terry Hartikka of the Cornerstone Family Church revealed that the past weekend the hotel held a “SpookTacular Sexy Halloween Party” at the hotel, which they had booked to full.

“Come join like-minded lovers as we party the night away,” read the Web page for the event, sponsored by a swingers club that has been around Minnesota about as long as Hanna has been editor and Hartikka has been a pastor. “If you’re offended by nudity, and being aroused seeing a whole bunch of sexy, fun, sensually charged people, this is not the event to attend. If you meet a great person or persons take it to the next level, go back to your hotel room as often as [you] like by yourself or with new found friend or friends.”

Yes, Virginia, there really is an orgy down the block.

Hartikka said rumors of sex parties at the hotel had circulated, but no one ever talked about it publicly. “Boy, lots of jaws were dropping open, it’s a bombshell,” he said in an interview.

The conversation Hartikka started was an awkward one of carefully crafted sentences, red faces and a few giggles. Was a private sex party really anyone’s business? Could or should the city do anything to stop it? Why had no one mentioned the parties, which have been held 14 times over almost seven years, before?

One official wondered if they could shut down the group’s website because it features scantily clad people. Nudity! On the Internet!

When veteran blues singer, author and native Ranger Paul Metsa saw the first story in the Daily News about the controversy, he quipped to me, “I guess this takes the Virgin out of Virginia.”

But when the issue arose again at last week’s Streets and Alleys Committee meeting, Hartikka provided a tape recording of a phone call he had received from a domestic abuse advocate from Grand Rapids, who said a couple of women who had attended the parties told her they felt coerced by husbands or boyfriends to attend.

In a letter to the editor of the Daily News that runs on Sunday, Melissa Scaia, executive director of Advocates for Family Peace wrote about two women who said they were in abusive relationships and were taken to the Virginia party. “My experience at the sex parties in Virginia were the worst thing that ever happened to me in my abusive marriage,” one woman told Scaia, according to her letter. “He made me participate in things at those parties I can’t even talk about.”

“There were some pretty strong accusations,” said Hanna. “It jolted the council. There was a turn” from jocular to concerned.

Hanna said initial response has been leaning toward leaving the hotel and its frequent guests alone because the region has a libertarian streak that believes government should leave consenting adults alone. The question some now have is whether everything there was consensual. Virginia’s police chief and city attorney both told the local paper that there have been no complaints.

That doesn’t surprise Glen Williamson, who runs AttractionUSA, sponsor of the event, with his wife of 38 years. The business has run thousands of similar events over the past two decades and owns a nudist campground near Sandstone. The group has met in Virginia since 2010, bringing an estimated $50,000 or more to town per weekend.

“We have never had any issues,” said Williamson, 58, who called his customers “upstanding Minnesota citizens … doctors, lawyers and police officers. We’ve done thousands of events and never had a police call, never. If we have any issue with anyone, we ask them to leave.”

Williamson said one reason they chose Virginia is because of the region’s reputation for tolerance. He questioned Hartikka’s unfounded belief that the parties would lead to secondary crimes in the area, such as assaults and rapes.

“That makes no sense, ”said Williamson, who said the pastor could probably find an incident or two at swingers parties if he tried hard enough, just like in real life. He likened blaming swingers gatherings for sexual assaults in society to blaming every church for child abuse by a few clergy.

With a topic so inflammatory, both Hartikka and Williamson sound surprisingly reasoned and equally passionate about their beliefs.

Williamson wants people to love one another, in whatever combination they prefer.

Hartikka wants people to question whether this is something they want in Virginia. He doesn’t want people to turn against one another. He does want city officials to investigate whether there are any ordinances to restrict such parties.

“Let’s not get rabid,” he said.

 

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin