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City tells downtown Ferndale bar owner to turn off the music

Main Street Bar & Grill exterior sign (January 16, 2019). Photo courtesy of John Wirts

Since John Wirts took over the Main Street Bar & Grill at 2005 Main Street in 2014 it has become one of the top Whatcom County venues for live music on weekends and Thursdays. On other days it is also a favorite lunch and dinner spot, weekly cornhole tournament location, sports bar and neighborhood pocket billiards hangout.

Over the years, live bands have been performing nearly every Friday and Saturday and special guest acts performed on Thursdays. But, as a result of a recent city fire inspection, live music, dancing and DJ music may be a thing of the past at the Main Street Bar & Grill.

Documents show that in October 2018, Wirts was visited by a building inspector from the City of Ferndale who was conducting a fire code inspection. After the inspection, Wirts was given a report informing him of several items that could be addressed relatively easily and one that could not.

In addition to being required to remove items stored under a stairwell, moving a fire extinguisher to an “appropriate location,” changing out locks on exit doors and some other handyman-type corrections, Wirts learned his business was going to be categorized as a nightclub by building code definition. That meant he was required to either install a fire suppression sprinkler system or stop the music.

Wirts said such a system would cost between $80,000 and $100,000.

6 days later, Wirts was given an official notice of violation with a potential penalty of $1,000 since the Main Street Bar & Grill had continued operating as a nightclub in the absence of an approved fire suppression system.

Wirts said he was surprised by the notice of violation and after talking with his landlord and attorney went to city hall and paid $600 to file an appeal.

According to documents provided to Wirts by the city inspector, “no concerts or dancing or listening to music from a DJ” could take place until the building was equipped with a fire suppression system. But Wirts said he was being allowed to continue while waiting on his appeal to be heard.

Ferndale Communications Officer Riley Sweeney posted the following on social media to explain the city’s position:

Last year, the City did inspections of almost all downtown businesses, specifically looking at fire safety. As a result of that inspections, it was clear that Main Street Bar and Grill qualified as a nightclub and needed to have some safer exits and a fire suppression system. These are federal requirements, put in place after a couple of very deadlY nightclub fires that killed hundreds.

The city worked with Main Street trying to find a solution but once the determination had been made, we had to enforce the law evenly. We can’t play favorites or turn a blind eye, that would make the City liable in the case of a tragedy and isn’t fair to those who do follow the law.

We hope this can get resolved soon, obviously please continue to buy food and drinks there because it is a great local business. We hate having to be the bearer of bad news but in this case, our hands were tied and we have to carry out the law.

MFN asked Sweeney to clarify his comments including specifics regarding how the “city worked with Main Street trying to find a solution.” Sweeney’s emailed response was “Our City Attorney, Dannon Traxler, is handling the details of this situation as we move forward and will follow up with the answer to your questions.” No immediate answers had been received by the time this story was published.

Lawmakers across the US undertook new laws requiring fire suppression systems in nightclubs after a tragic fire occurred at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island in 2003 in which over 100 people died and over 200 were injured.

According to the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) section 19.27.510, “nightclub” is a term used by the 2006 International Building Code and is used when the total area of “concentrated use of unfixed chairs and standing space that is specifically designated and primarily used for dancing or viewing performers exceeds 350 square feet, excluding adjacent lobby areas. This does not include theatres, banquet halls or lodge halls.”

And RCW 19.27.500 says rules were to be adopted requiring all nightclubs be provided with an automatic sprinkler system by December 1, 2009. These rules were adopted in Washington State in 2005.

But Wirts says such requirements were never presented to him when he purchased the business in 2014 or since.

Wirts says he expects his appeal to be heard by the Hearing Examiner in March. In the mean time he is also dealing with the sale of the business.

Prospective buyers and Ferndale residents Michael and Vivi Crow approached Wirts about buying the business in October, according to Wirts. They were made aware of the city’s findings and the appeal and remained interested in moving forward with purchasing the business.

Wirts said city staff said a new business license would not be approved unless it was stipulated that music was not allowed.

Wirts says he expects the sale of the business to close February 1st. “The new owners will still be pumping out great food and drinks,” Wirts said.

As of the writing of this story, Wirts said he was continuing with his appeal.

One Comment

  1. Thomas S Callen January 19, 2019

    Dannon has been a problem for many business in the city of ferndale and is not the only one. it is clear to me the city of ferndale is no longer on the side of business in ferndale it’s sad really. I know I’m not alone in this feeling, I hope this changes soon for the sake of the city.

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