There are 23 massage businesses in Blaine, and city leaders think that’s enough.

The City Council is poised to cap the number of massage business licenses at one for every 2,500 residents, which currently would be 24. When the final vote is taken later this spring, Blaine could be one of the first cities in the metro area to limit that type of business, according to city staff.

Some massage therapists worry that the cap will hinder competition as the industry grows quickly and is more widely considered a viable pain-management alternative.

Minnesota is one of only five states that don’t license massage businesses, leaving that up to individual cities. Three years ago, Blaine started licensing massage businesses and individual massage therapists, requiring training standards, criminal background checks and insurance minimums. The goal was to ensure safe, sanitary conditions and to make sure that massage businesses aren’t operating as fronts for prostitution or criminal activity.

Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan said the city has been inundated with applications for licenses, with some claiming overseas training that could not be verified. Processing applications and checking on compliance consume a lot of city resources, Ryan said.

The mayor said that while he believes massage is a legitimate industry, he worries some places of ill repute could open if there isn’t a cap. He said he spoke with the police chief about those concerns.

“This grew a lot faster than I ever thought,” Ryan said. “It’s a business that can grow wild. I thought it was time to be more careful.”

But critics of the new policy say it would impede legitimate businesses and wouldn’t stop crime.

The number of licenses issued to individual massage therapists would not be limited, but they would have to work for one of the licensed businesses.

Ryan said the city limits liquor and pawnshop licenses for the same reasons.

“We had a lot of problems with pawnshops,” he said. “Now we have only one, and that’s where we are going to keep it.”

Keeping the city clean

A few years back, Ryan said, he walked into one of the city’s massage businesses to inquire about a gift card.

“It was so dark I could hardly see,” Ryan said. The woman behind the counter refused to quote him a price for a massage. “She didn’t want to talk to me,” he said.

That’s the kind of experience the city hopes to eliminate with licensing and the cap. “It just destroys a city’s reputation” if prostitution takes a foothold, Ryan said.

The number of massage businesses in a city varies widely. Coon Rapids, population 62,000, has eight licensed massage businesses; Roseville, population 35,000, has 31, and Burnsville, population 61,000, has 65. Brooklyn Park, population 78,000, has 17.

Blaine City Council Member Wes Hovland said he supports the cap. “We felt we were getting to a point where we would be overwhelmed by massage parlors,” Hovland said. “The more we get, the more we have to monitor and regulate.”

Punishing the legitimate?

The Minnesota Chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association and other trade groups, frustrated with piecemeal city ordinances, have asked the Legislature to create a voluntary statewide credentialing system for massage and bodywork therapists.

Jason Erickson, an Eagan massage therapist and president of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association, said he believes capping the number of massage businesses is misguided and won’t keep out criminal enterprises. Rather, it just impedes legitimate business owners, he said.

There are an estimated 5,000 massage therapists in Minnesota, he said.

Erickson said massage is growing in popularity because people are seeking alternative treatment for pain. Doctors, physical therapists and chiropractors now recommend massage. Clients range from people recovering from traumatic injuries to people stiff and aching from long days in front of a computer screen. In Ohio, the state medical board oversees massage therapy licensing, and in Washington state, it’s the Department of Health.

“The number one reason people seek out massage therapy is pain,” Erickson said.

Erickson said he shares concerns about illegal behavior. “How can we make it harder for those [illegal] businesses, but not make things egregiously difficult for legitimate businesses?” he asked. “We’ve been trying to separate ourselves from this kind of stuff for so long. We are the first ones to find out if a place is legitimate or not. In many cases, we might be the first people to report it.”

Massage therapist Danielle Holten owns Essentially Massage in Blaine. She has been in business since 2010 and employs two additional massage therapists. Her business is growing, especially since it moved from Andover to Blaine, which is more centrally located, she said.

“We have had significant increases in the last year,” Holten said. “For us, it’s coming from doctors and physicians. If you have sport injuries or have been in a car accident, there is other therapy you can seek other than pain medication.”

She believes the cap plan is misguided and could hinder legitimate massage therapists.

“A lot of cities are trying to fight the battle on the wrong front,” she said.