A prostitution bust at a Chanhassen massage parlor in late October has inspired the west metro city to join more than a dozen other Twin Cities communities in imposing special requirements on such businesses.

On Monday, Chanhassen’s City Council voted 5-0 to create an ordinance requiring background checks on any massage therapy business operating in the city.

“There are a number of legitimate massage businesses that we fully want to be in our town,” said Chanhassen Mayor Tom Furlong. “Yet at the same time, we want to put up roadblocks to prevent illegitimate businesses from operating freely in the city.”

The Chanhassen vote came after arrests at Valora Massage, which opened earlier this year. Citizens began questioning the nature of the business, prompting council members last summer to begin discussing the need for an ordinance, and what it should contain.

Meanwhile, the Carver County Sheriff’s Office was investigating complaints about Valora. On Oct. 29, an undercover deputy who posed as a massage customer was offered sexual services in return for money. Deputies searched the business a short time later, and three women allegedly confessed to engaging in prostitution. Authorities said one of them, the owner, was jailed. An investigation continues.

“Certainly what was going on with that business was part of what motivated us to pass an ordinance,” said Laurie Hokkanen, Chanhassen’s assistant city manager. A number of other massage businesses have opened for less than a year in the city and then moved on, she said, raising suspicions. And the city has received more calls in the past couple of years asking whether it licenses massage firms, she said.

“Our perception is that as other communities have added massage licensing, those people that are conducting unsavory activities are looking for places where there is not licensing,” Hokkanen said.

More than a dozen metro communities require massage businesses or therapists to be licensed, including Bloomington, St. Paul, Chaska, Eagan, Golden Valley, Hopkins, Maple Grove, Lakeville, Minnetonka, and most recently before Chanhassen, Eden Prairie. Minneapolis held a public hearing on Nov. 18 on a proposal to license massage businesses.

Background checks

Chanhassen’s new ordinance is fairly narrow compared to some others because it licenses only businesses, not individual therapists. It requires that massage therapy firms operating or seeking to operate in the city pay a one-time $50 licensing fee and undergo a one-time $250 background check of their owners and managers. Owners must disclose all businesses owned in the previous seven years and provide three character witnesses who live in Minnesota.

Managers are also responsible for maintaining the name, date of birth and address of employees, and for representing their business operations truthfully. Owners could be summoned for a hearing and possible license revocation if the content of their advertising calls into question the nature of their business, or if they have a license suspended or revoked in another city.

Applications for licenses are due by Jan. 31, 2014.

Unlike some Minnesota cities, Chanhassen does not require individual therapists to obtain licenses, or to list their educational qualifications or hours of professional training.

The ordinance does not include licensed chiropractors, athletic trainers, physicians and medical professionals, or those who do chair massages at an office or work at home.

The measure affects half a dozen massage therapy businesses in the city.

Mixed reactions

Marsh Korvela, owner of one of them, Best Day Massage, which has two therapists, said he was “neutral” about the new rules.

“The city wants to keep things on the up-and-up; however, I don’t know if just having licensing discourages that kind of unethical behavior or not,” he said. “I don’t know if it has any bearing on what [individual therapists] do.”

Allison Lesch, human resources director for Spalon Montage, said her firm already complies with more detailed requirements for therapists who work in its operations in Edina and Woodbury. “Anything that brings more credibility to our profession, we’re game,” Lesch said. “We’re fine with the [Chanhassen] ordinance.”

The Minnesota chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association has pushed for licensing at the state level, rather than continuing an expanding patchwork of local ordinances in cities.

Minnesota is one of only a handful of states that does not require massage therapy licenses. By contrast, Illinois requires massage therapists seeking licenses to receive 500 hours of training, pass a state exam and undergo a background check.

Heading off trouble

In addition to deterring illegitimate businesses from opening in the city, Hokkanen said Chanhassen also wants to help police pull timely information if they’re investigating complaints about prostitutes fronting as massage therapists.

Carver County Sheriff Chief Deputy Jason Kamerud said that in some cases, information from the licensing could speed up investigations.

However, the primary benefit of the ordinance will probably be to discourage undesirable businesses, he said, “culling them out before they even open a business in your city through the backgrounding process.”

That would be fine with the city, Hokkanen said.

“We’re just letting a new massage business that comes to town know that we care about what goes on in our community and we’ll be keeping an eye on them,” she said. “Chances are they’ll be another great addition to the community, but if not, we’re going to have the tools needed to get them out of town or get them off to jail or whatever we need to do.”