Hot Water

A Rhode Island metal tragedy could burn Seattle nightclub owners.

Up until a couple weeks ago, odds were good that if the '80s hair-metal band Great White approached Tractor Tavern owner Dan Cowan about playing his rootsy Ballard Avenue music hall, they'd be politely turned down.

But now that Cowan's being forced by the state Legislature to install a not-so-cheap sprinkler system at his club, he'd be likely to stick the washed-up L.A. cock rockers with the entire $30,000 tab.

Were it not for the meatheaded pyrotechnics that resulted in the deaths of nearly 100 patrons at a Great White club gig in Rhode Island in early 2003, Cowan's state senator, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, and her colleagues may have never thought to pass a stealthy bit of 2005 legislation requiring every Washington nightclub with a capacity exceeding 100 to install on-premise sprinkler systems.

"I did introduce the legislation because of the Rhode Island nightclub fire," says Kohl-Welles, whose 36th Legislative District encompasses Queen Anne, Magnolia, and the Greater Ballard area. The only problem is, nightclub owners like Cowan weren't in the loop.

"Things happen so fast in Olympia," Kohl-Welles explains. "Frequently—too frequently, perhaps—we rely on stakeholder groups to alert people. And I don't know that nightclubs have lobbyists in Olympia."

A handful of owners active with the city's nightlife task force were recently informed, almost a year after the fact, that they have until December 2007 to install the sprinklers, at a cost of up to $4.50 per square foot—which doesn't include the flat $10,000–$20,000 fee (depending on the venue's size) for tapping into the city's water line.

"That's a lot of money to smaller clubs," says Linda Derschang, owner of Linda's Tavern on Capitol Hill and Viceroy in Belltown, which has a capacity of 100. "It's certainly going to be a hardship." Derschang's architect is considering installing a closet to reduce the Viceroy's capacity by a single person, thus exempting the club from the mandate.

"I'm certainly not opposed to the basic idea, but it's expensive," says the Tractor's Cowan, who faces the impact on his Conor Byrne's pub as well. "For some businesses, it could take two or three years to pay that off. It's coming directly out of my pocket. You can't really raise cover charges because the industry doesn't really work like that."

The law is expected to cover some 100 Seattle venues. City officials are skeptical as to whether all clubs can be brought up to code by the Legislature's deadline.

"This would put a heavy burden on the fire department, " says Seattle City Council President Nick Licata, who also did not receive a heads-up from the Legislature.

"I think what happened is that legislators saw this horrendous incident which they could take quick, decisive action on—but without talking to folks in the field and understanding what the ramifications are," adds Licata.

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