Three years ago, Chattanooga fire officials said the city's fire codes were outdated and officials had to address bar and club safety by requiring owners to install costly sprinkler systems.
That message has changed.
New fire officials now say that isn't the case and the City Council was told Tuesday the fire marshal and fire chief support a resolution that would free most business owners from installing sprinklers.
Under the current law, owners of sports bars, restaurants with live entertainment, dance halls, discotheques, nightclubs and "assembly occupancies with festival seating" have until Dec. 31 to comply with a 2011 ordinance.
The council debated the issue for months in 2011 and passed the ordinance with a 5-4 vote. Councilman Chris Anderson received a unanimous vote Tuesday night for the first reading of his ordinance to lift the sprinkler system regulations for most business owners.
"We took a great step for economic development," Anderson told the council.
Anderson's ordinance would grandfather business owners into an older resolution, freeing them from this rule, unless the business uses pyrotechnics inside their building. Owners of new buildings still will have to install sprinklers.
Several Chattanooga business owners, including a former mayor, told city officials during Tuesday's Economic and Community Development committee meeting that they would have to close their doors if the ordinance wasn't altered.
"This ordinance as currently written is cost-prohibitive for small, family-owned businesses," said Lamar Partridge, owner of Lamar's Restaurant on M.L. King Jr. Boulevard.
Partridge and others told the council they were given an estimate between $50,000 and $70,000 to install the system and then it would cost more to maintain the water bill.
"We can't afford to put sprinklers in there, we won't be able to play music there [at Track 29]," said former Mayor Jon Kinsey, whose son Adam Kinsey owns the popular music venue Track 29.
Councilwoman Carol Berz, who originally voted for the ordinance in 2011, said she would support the bill if she could hear from the current Fire Marshal William Matlock that the sprinklers weren't necessary.
"We were told this was best practices for cities and that we were negligent on this," Berz said.
When the original legislation was introduced, then-Fire Marshal James Whitmire campaigned for the change and the council watched videos of a 100 people burning to death trapped inside a Rhode Island nightclub.
While neither Matlock nor Fire Chief Lamar Flint were at the City Council meeting, the mayor's Chief Operating Officer Travis McDonough said both were in support of the changes. And Berz said she was satisfied to move forward with the first reading.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.