Phoenix Theater raises money for costly fire sprinkler upgrades, roof repair

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A beloved downtown Petaluma venue that has long provided a haven for youth and a stage for local and national bands is asking the community for hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace a leaky roof and complete city-mandated upgrades to its fire sprinkler system.

Housed in a 113-year-old Washington Street concert hall, the Phoenix Theater is on a list of 11 addresses that are years overdue in meeting a city requirement to install automatic fire sprinklers.

Jessica Power, Petaluma’s newest fire marshal who started June 2017, intends to hold to account property owners after the city previously failed to enforce the rules. She sent an August letter mandating the businesses submit plans to the city by Dec. 1, and install automatic sprinkler systems by March 31.

Failure to install sprinklers could result in fines or potential closures. However, Power said she’s willing to work with businesses that make a good-faith effort to meet the deadlines.

“We are very motivated to make sure that people are successful in getting those installed and making sure businesses stay open,” Power said. “We will work with people, ... we’re not interested in citing or closing anyone down. But we’ll use all enforcement actions necessary if people are refusing.”

Through individual donors and previously pledged funds from local groups, the Phoenix Theater has raised about $220,000, and is seeking $80,000 more to cover costs of both projects, said Jim Agius, a member of the nonprofit’s board of directors who spearheaded the fundraising efforts.

Agius estimated the sprinkler system installation will cost at least $187,000.

The roof replacement is expected to cost more than $90,000 and will likely be completed by year’s end, General Manager Tom Gaffey said.

In addition to hosting concerts, the Phoenix Theater offers art and music programs and runs a health clinic for local teens. The nonprofit ended the 2016 calendar year with $6,481 in revenue after nearly $210,000 in expenses, according to the most recent federal tax form 990.

The nonprofit owns the building, where it has hosted bands such as X, The Misfits, and Sublime.

“It’s amazing that people are willing to help us with this project,” Gaffey said. “It feels really good.”

The city put into place the sprinkler rules after a 2002 fire burned five storefronts on Kentucky Street and injured a firefighter. In 2004, the Petaluma City Council passed an ordinance requiring historic buildings on Western Avenue and Kentucky, Keller and Washington streets to install basement sprinklers by the end of 2010 and ground-level systems by the end of 2016. Those sprinklers were to be connected to an upgraded Kentucky Street water main, which was completed in 2005.

During a period of staff turnover, it wasn’t clear which of the 43 impacted businesses got notices about the deadlines, or how recently they were issued, Power said. However, most have already made the sprinkler upgrades.

When she was hired, Power met with city staff to determine a “reasonable” time frame for compliance amid a shortage of contractors after last year’s wildfires, she said.

The theater already has some sprinklers, Gaffey said, and he’s confident concert-goers are safe. The all-ages club was hit by fires in the 1920s and again three decades later, Gaffey said.

Power said the other buildings don’t have sprinklers. They all pose a “greater risk” to safety, she said.

Prior to receiving the August letter, Phoenix Theater operators said they weren’t aware of set deadlines to upgrade the building’s system. Other out-of-compliance businesses include a bar, a handmade furniture store and an interior design studio, according to a list provided by the city.

Plans for the theater’s sprinkler system have been submitted, and Agius said operators are committed to meeting deadlines to keep doors open.

“We had been hearing from so many people who are afraid ... there’s no imminent closure. That’s never been on the table,” Agius said.

Marie McCusker, executive director of Petaluma’s Downtown Business Association, said she’s plans to meet with the fire marshal about the mandates. She said her association has made property owners aware of the city’s rules for years, and that the Phoenix Theater is the only business that’s reached out recently to express concern about the city’s enforcement.

She said the theater is viewed as an important resource, and she’s confident in the community’s ability to support it.

“The reality is we have fires, and we all agree safety is a really important issue,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or

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