Owners to chicken out of the world's most famous brothel

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The Independent US

Seven million dollars sounds like a lot of money for a ranch in the Nevada desert, even one with a swimming pool, spa and 17 bedrooms. Then again, the Chicken Ranch is no ordinary property. Its claim is to be the most celebrated whorehouse in the Western world. Those bedrooms are not intended for sleep - or, for that matter, for plucking chickens.

Seven million dollars sounds like a lot of money for a ranch in the Nevada desert, even one with a swimming pool, spa and 17 bedrooms. Then again, the Chicken Ranch is no ordinary property. Its claim is to be the most celebrated whorehouse in the Western world. Those bedrooms are not intended for sleep - or, for that matter, for plucking chickens.

The ranch's owners, a California businessman and his sidekick, a former high school biology teacher, claim that they are tired after 22 years of business and want to cash out and retire. The $6.95m they are asking is, they say, a million or so less than the business is worth, and whoever takes it over can expect to recoup their investment in three or four years.

When it comes to the legalised brothel business in Nevada, things are rarely quite as straightforward as they sound, however. Since it moved to the desert outpost of Pahrump from central Texas in the mid-1970s, the Ranch has been subjected to a morality campaign by local Mormons, taken to court as a public nuisance, and burned to the ground by its rivals. More recently it has suffered from a post-September 11 dip in tourist traffic to Las Vegas, 60 miles away, as well as the expansion plans of its neighbour and rival, Sheri's Ranch, which is building a full-blown resort, complete with golf course.

Most worrisome of all, according to co-owner Ken Green, is the proliferation of illegal prostitution within the Las Vegas city limits. The Chicken Ranch gets most of its custom from Vegas holidaymakers who make the hour-long trip across the mountains by limousine or rental car. But if girls are willing to turn tricks five minutes from their hotels, where is the incentive?

"Illegal prostitution in Las Vegas ... is out of control," Mr Green admitted to the Las Vegas Review Journal. "Once they get it under control again, people will start going out to Pahrump."

Clearly, at 62, Mr Green has decided not to hold his breath. His candour may be counterproductive, though. As one Las Vegas sex industry habitué put it: "If you're selling a house, it's not a good idea to mention the nuclear power plant next door."

Still, the Ranch's public relations agent, Bob Fisher, reports a dozen calls from brokers or potential buyers in the past few days. All but one was interested in keeping the whorehouse business intact.

The Ranch, after all, is an American landmark, of sorts. Its Texan incarnation, which dates back to the 19th century, was immortalised in the Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, turned into a film with Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. (The name "Chicken Ranch" stems from the Depression-era barter arrangement whereby the ladies of the house would offer their services in exchange for a chicken.)

It still calls itself "the Best Little Whorehouse in the West", with prices to match the reputation. By all accounts, it's hard to get away without dropping $400-$500. In the tradition of rural Nevada, 12 of whose 17 counties permit prostitution, it doesn't have to worry about the vice squad. Indeed, Pahrump exists because it is the nearest spot to Las Vegas where brothels are legal. Because of suburbanisation, however, the day may yet come when Pahrump's property values become more interesting to speculators than its sex industry.

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