N.H. Social Clubs Struggle to Meet Fire Code

March 16, 2005

Social clubs in New Hampshire say they are struggling to comply with orders to install automatic sprinkler systems.

In response to a 2003 fire that killed 100 people at a nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., New Hampshire adopted regulations in September requiring automatic sprinkler systems in bars, dance halls and other night spots with a capacity of more than 100 people.

In Manchester, more than two dozen clubs and bars that lack such systems received letters last month informing them of the requirement, but some say the safety precaution is too costly.

“They could put us out of business … It would be murder,” said Al Aubin, president of the Lafayette Club, who estimates it would cost nearly $100,000 to install sprinklers.

Joe Levasseur, a lawyer representing the Even Par Social Club, agreed.

“This is just another waste of bureaucratic time and money, and it will obviously hurt some of the small-time business owners in Manchester and, and some may go out of business,” he said.

It’s unclear how long the businesses have to comply. The letters from the city gave them 30 days to submit plans, but Fire Chief Joe Kane since has backed off that deadline. Mike Colby, an aide to Mayor Bob Baines, said the mayor favors giving the establishments two to three years to install sprinklers.

“We don’t want to see social clubs going out of business,” Colby said.

The Chateau Restaurant has asked to be removed from the list, arguing it doesn’t fit the criteria for the regulations.

Owner Yash Pal said the restaurant is a smoke-free, family restaurant with an 11:30 p.m. last call. There is no entertainment in the lounge and DJs are used for private parties only.

Other establishments said they would install sprinklers.

“It’s not cheap. For us, business is good, so we’ll be able to manage,” said Jim Batchelder, owner of The Wild Rover.

At the American Legion Sweeney Post, Jr. Vice Commander Dennis Smith said his organization has put together a plan and soon will seek bids from contractors. Members expect it will cost $30,000 to $40,00 to install a system.

The post has nearly 1,300 members and a capital fund to pay for building upgrades. No one thinks the regulation is overkill, Smith said.

“I don’t think anyone thinks that, in light of what took place down in Warwick,” he said.

City officials were expected to meet with state Fire Marshal Bill Degnan to discuss the regulations. Colby said the city has several questions, including whether churches and bingo halls eventually will have to install sprinklers.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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