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Breaking News: Columbia City Cinema to Close for Good Thursday

Columbia City Cinema owner Paul Doyle has just announced that the Rainier Valley’s only movie theater will close for good this Thursday night. From this evening’s email update:

Last week, while we thought we were still working with the city, city government closed the cinema by order of the mayor, the fire marshal and the building department.

They said we were not making sufficient progress toward installing fire sprinklers. That’s hard to understand or even believe, since we had dug ourselves out of the $80,000 hole the city put us in, gotten drawings, obtained permits, asked for bids, awarded the contract, and were a week or two away from beginning. Why is that not sufficient progress? We asked for a two-month extension and were denied.

The announcement comes after several years of financial insecurity for the cinema. Two years ago, the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund stepped in with a loan and assistance restructuring some of the cinema’s earlier debt. At the time, then RVCDF Executive Director Martina Guilfoil said that the spill-over that the cinema creates for other area businesses was a factor in the organization’s willingness to help.

“Having a first-run movie theater is vital to Columbia City and the Rainier Valley,” she said. “We applaud Paul’s effort to keep the theater operating and wanted the fund to be used to support this effort.”

But just one year later, the cinema was still smarting under the weight of substantial debt when Doyle appealed to the community for donations in an attempt to raise $20,000 to stay afloat.

“We don’t have money for the rent. We don’t have money to pay for film. We don’t have money for loan and lease payments,” he said.

Less than two weeks later, Doyle was perhaps more shocked than anyone to report that half the money had been raised and the cinema would ride again.

“Money has been pouring in just like that scene in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ when the Building and Loan gets saved,” he said. “So please keep it coming.”

But it was just a few months later, in November 2010, that Doyle announced a need for another $50,000 in donations to “make up back bills, taxes and rent by December 31 or the landlord will evict us and turn the cinema into a storage unit.”

He began selling stock in the cinema as a way to raise the money, but it wasn’t long before the Washington State Securities Division halted sales on the grounds that Doyle failed to provide potential purchasers of its stock with material information regarding the offering.

The saga of the cinema continued when the City of Seattle insisted that the historic building be brought up to code with the installation of a costly new fire sprinkler system, and Doyle said he couldn’t afford it. After two temporary-use permits and a very public and contentious battle, Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith said last week that he was done negotiating and – if the improvements weren’t made – the cinema would have to close.

“We have all heard about tragedies in large buildings that lacked adequate fire protection, and we cannot close our eyes to these important public safety concerns,” he said in an open letter to the community.

It seems Smith wasn’t bluffing.

Photo/do communications

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17 comments on “Breaking News: Columbia City Cinema to Close for Good Thursday

  1. A succinct summary of the story here, Amber, thank you for this. We’re grateful to Paul for all he has done, but wonder why the building owners (who also own The Garage on Capitol Hill) would balk at providing the necessary sprinklers so the cinema could continue to operate. It’s baffling.

    And what will next go into the space? Storage, as Paul suggests above? This is a sad day for the neighborhood. Wish our connections at City Hall could have been more pro-active on this issue by putting more heat on the landlords, unless there is a Plan B that’s been waiting for Paul to give up. Time will tell.

  2. I wonder if the building owners have someone interested in running a theater there—and I believe it is THEIR responsibility to install the sprinklers, morally if not legally. I have no clue if it is truly a viable business. We’re not movie-goers in general, but when we did go to see something on the big screen, we always went to CCC. The cinema is definitely a draw for the neighborhood in general though—very sad.

  3. What I find ridiculous is that the city is so hell bent on closing down a viable small business that is an important part of a community, providing not just entertainment but much needed jobs and tax income for the city. Now what? We can go down to Tukwila and give our money to a monster corporation at Southcenter? Where’s the neighborhood support I keep hearing this administration touting so much? It really comes across like city officials don’t like Mr. Doyle and have a vendetta against him. I personally don’t give a hoot if city officlas don’t care for Mr. Doyle, I expect them to do their jobs as public servants and support our communities and the local businesses in those communities. If Mr. Doyle can demonstrate that there is a viable plan for raising the funds to pay for the sprinkler installation then the city needs to work WITH the cinema, not shut it down and harm our local economy even further. Absolutely ridiculous.

  4. Another interesting point regarding the sprinklers – it used to be that the cinema only operated on the top floor, the place most likely to be at risk in the event of a fire. But the city never required sprinklers then. It was not until the downstairs was remodeled into 2 extra screens that suddenly the entire structure needed sprinklers. Had the downstairs renovation never been done, the upstairs would still be the ‘death trap’ that apparently it has now become, much like some of the other remaining small cinemas in town (the few that are still standing). Nobody at the city government ever seemed to care about that.

  5. C’mon, not everything out there is big bad government trying to shut down the little guy. Paul has had ample time to make the required improvements. If he truly has contractors scheduled to begin work, has the money in the bank to pay for the work, and can have it done in a month or two; then I can see giving him a chance. What I would bet though is that he doesn’t actually have all the pieces in place and is just stalling as he has done so many times in the past. I don’t blame the city for dropping the hammer.

    The code is the code. When Paul expanded the place it was his responsibility to properly account for all the added expenses of the expansion. He obviously did not do so. If it is in the lease, then yes it would be the building owners responsibility, but I am guessing that it is not in the lease. The tenant is responsible for the required improvements to the space.

    There is only one entity to blame here, the business. The business was not profitable, hence it goes away. Maybe it is the man running the business, or maybe it’s just the fact that it’s extremely difficult to run a small movie theater these days. Either way, if the business cannot bring in the revenue to support it’s legal operation, it goes away.

  6. Anyone who has been around Seattle long enough to remember the Ozark Hotel disaster in the late ’60’s (or thereabouts) knows why SFD is so hardcore about this stuff. Granted, that was arson, but we’ve had arsons since then. Besides, isn’t this a national code thing that came out of the Rhode Island nightclub fire a few years back?

    Sorry, this guy keeps coming up with excuses. Now he’s trying to palm it off on the city.

  7. It’s too bad that the millions we spent on the at risk kids was put towards teaching them a trade – such as sprinkler fitting – that could have been beneficial to the neighborhood is so many ways.

  8. I really don’t think the lack of qualified sprinkler installers is at the heart of this problem. From my office view in SODO I can see at least 2 companies that specialize in sprinklers.

    I’m not saying spending money for technical training of at-risk use it a bad thing. I just don’t think it has anything to do with the cinema’s current predicament.

    Also, I don’t see how people can keep referring to the cinema as a “viable” business. It obviously is not under the current conditions.

  9. @4

    There may be a little irony in that one has to drive to the theater at Southcenter, but one could probably walk or if you own a bicycle, bike to CC.

  10. Hmm…. does anyone know if the property owners will be required to install sprinklers if the building goes vacant? I know the current requirement was triggered by the change in use but I’m guessing any other future use – especially storage units – would require sprinklers. Hopefully any future tenant will know enough to stay away from this building until it is sprinklered.

  11. The cinema was a horrible business model to begin with. I remember when it first opened and folks were complaining about the lack of ADA access, no wheelchairs were able to get in the theater.

    As years went on, most neighbors sympathized with the owner and money woes, and many generously donated to keep it opened. However the last straw was the fire sprinklers. This historical building was not fit to be a movie theatre without expensive upgrades like mandatory sprinklers.

    I have heard of reports of fires caused by overheated movie projectors elsewhere, burning cigarettes in a restroom etc. but the fact of the matter is, old buildings burn fast and furious. A serious public safety hazard. R.I. P.

  12. I’m sad to lose the Cinema, but I think that this was inevitable. I’ve been there plenty of times, and rarely seen more than 15 people. The employees ALWAYS looked bored. As someone else said, the code is the code. When it comes to safety things, I don’t think we should let our emotions and sympathies decide whether it’s enforced uniformly.

  13. Also surprised to learn the cinema received funding from the RVCDF. With their poor credit rating, I’m sure any bank in this town would have rejected the cinema’s loan request.

    Compare this scenerio to the neighborhood beauty salon owner impacted by light rail construction in front of her business for years and who was turned down for this type of RVCDF loan by being blown off and laughed at with racial implications. Sad but true.

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