The naked women strut on 9-inch heels, illuminated by scores of neon beer signs at the King of Diamonds Gentleman's Club in Inver Grove Heights. Some of the men who come to ogle them enter the club carrying -- of all things -- cans of food in exchange for free or reduced admission.

With former owner Larry Kladek heading to federal prison on Tuesday to begin serving a 20-month sentence for tax evasion, some hoped the strip club wouldn't be around much longer. But his wife, Susan Kladek, bought the club and has dug in her heels.

"This is my business, and I'm proud of it," she said, "and I'm not going anywhere."

In fact, she's trying to raise the profile of the King of Diamonds with things such as the food donation drives and by publicizing the help she and her husband have given Hmong farmers, who rent garden plots on the Kladeks' 78-acre farm a few miles away.

Her efforts come as the city forges ahead with a $1.6 million proposal to turn the historic Rock Island Swing Bridge, a short walk from the King of Diamonds, into a new recreational pier. The thought of visitors passing by the strip club is distasteful to some, but Mayor George Tourville said that, perhaps, families could use it as a teaching moment about property rights, business rights and morals.

Still, "a lot of people would like it to be gone," he said.

Late last year, as the annual renewal for the city's liquor license was approaching, Larry Kladek, 63, was about to be convicted of a scheme in which he funneled money from an ATM into a secret business account. City officials knew that a conviction would make him ineligible for the renewal.

"Certainly there was speculation, with the charges that he was facing, what would happen to the license, and what would happen to the business," said City Administrator Joe Lynch.

"If Larry would have applied for it, he would have been denied," Tourville said. "He didn't apply for it. He sold it to his wife."

Kladek pleaded guilty in December to one count of filing a false individual tax return and admitted owing the IRS more than $912,000. He acknowledged receiving about $1.2 million in unreported income between 2000 and 2004.

Susan Kladek, 43, passed the background check for the renewal.

To mount a legal battle now to shut down the club would be expensive, and perhaps futile, because the club owner is breaking no laws, Tourville said.

Land helps feed Hmong

Larry Kladek had maintained in federal court that he should stay out of prison because he rents 28 vegetable farm plots on his hilly estate to about 50 Hmong farmers.

On a recent morning, a few of them worked their plots of watermelon, squash, sugar cane and more. Among them was Ly Vang, head of the Association for the Advancement of Hmong Women in Minnesota.

She said that the Kladeks' land feeds hundreds of Hmong families and that farmers relied on the tilling and other help that Larry Kladek had given them, as well as his low rental prices.

But a federal prosecutor didn't believe that sending Larry Kladek to prison would hurt the Hmong community, and neither did the judge.

Russ Liljedahl, an Inver Grove Heights resident who said he finds the nude entertainment "offensive," went to City Hall late last year to urge city leaders to not renew the club's liquor license.

"The only time they got community oriented was when they got in trouble with the law," he said.

Susan Kladek is benefitting from her husband's ill-gotten gains, including the couple's $6 million house, Liljedahl added.

Not in my back yard

Saturday, the King of Diamonds presented one of its food drives during an event with classic cars on display outside and a lingerie show inside.

Three miles away, the congregation of New Heights Community Church has been praying for the club to close, said the Rev. Dan Schauer.

"My wife is a family and marriage counselor, and she's counseled couples and families that have been adversely affected by that institution," Schauer said. "We also feel from a spiritual perspective that it's not an uplifting thing for the community. We don't feel that God is pleased with a strip club being in Inver Grove Heights."

His mother, JoAnne Schauer, paused during her recent garage sale to say she would not want to stroll with her grandchildren past the club to the proposed pier. "No way," she said. "And I worry about the young women in our area who are exposing their bodies that way. What does that do to their morality, their self-esteem, their self-worth?"

Kladek said her business does not wreck marriages, harm the dancers or allow criminal activity.

"I strongly," she said, "disagree, obviously. This is an honest business. ... I wish people would really, really start fighting the right battles. And that's not about finding fault in everybody or everything. It's about actually fixing the bigger problems we have with our communities and our society, such as hunger."

Susan Kladek said her 75 entertainers are professionals who perform tableside dances but no lap dances. She doesn't allow dancers to exchange phone numbers with patrons because she does not want to "tarnish" the image of the club, she said.

A lawsuit brought against the business by dancers, however, maintains that they were not properly classified as employees, and had to pay fees to work and split their tips with employees. It also maintains that they did lap dances.

Tourville, for his part, noted that Susan Kladek now has big debt. She and her husband owe more than $1 million in unpaid taxes and fines. Meanwhile, city officials are watching closely.

"Our concern is the legality in property and property use," the mayor said. "Whether she makes it or not is her business."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017