City turns to fire code in effort to shutter Club Fathom

City turns to fire code in effort to shutter Club Fathom

December 30th, 2011 by Cliff Hightower in News

Mosaic's clearly marked back entrance leads to a parking lot maintained by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. Several signs posted throughout the lot make that known to the public.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

Chattanooga cracked down on the Mosaic church Thursday, saying only 100 people will be allowed into the facility from now on, and they can't venture more than 100 feet away from the front door.

Fire Marshal James Whitmire said he gave those instructions to the Rev. Tim Reid, pastor of Mosaic church, shortly after a surprise inspection Thursday.

"He can only use the main floor on Market Street," Whitmire said. He said the building's second floor, with two performance halls, is off limits because patrons will no longer be allowed to use the door to the back parking lot.

Reid said Thursday he feels the city is specifically targeting his church at 412 Market St. in what he called an "abuse of power."

"Those inspectors come in every year and we've never had these problems until now," he said. "It's very weird that they find it now."

City and police officials say Mosaic and its urban youth program, Club Fathom, are a dangerous nuisance with a history of fights, shootings and a rape over the past several years.

Controversy flared when nine people were shot in a nearby parking lot after some 400 teens and young adults left a Christmas Eve event at Club Fathom.

The city has filed for an injunction in Hamilton County Circuit Court, seeking to shut the venue down before a planned New Year's Eve party with deejays playing electronic music.

A second church that uses the space filed a motion to intervene in the court hearing this morning in which the city will ask that Mosaic be padlocked.

River City Church, which is not affiliated with Mosaic, wants the building to stay open so it can hold its usual 11 a.m. service Sunday, according to a motion filed Thursday by attorney McCracken Poston.

River City's pastor, the Rev. Martin Scott, said his nondenominational church, mostly Southern Baptists and Presbyterians, leases space from Mosaic.

Scott, who also is a Georgia state representative, said his church isn't taking sides in the battle between Mosaic and the city but just wants to hold services.

"If we were to shut down, it would be a heartbreaker," he said.

Assistant City Attorney Phil Noblett said Chattanooga has had no problems with the venue during church service hours, whether it's Mosaic's regular 5 p.m. Sunday service or River City Church.

"The issue is late in the evenings and the number of people," he said.

SURPRISE INSPECTION

City inspectors arrived at Mosaic around noon Friday. Whitmire said he reviewed the maximum occupancy of the building, which is 1,903 people. Based upon city criteria, the facility should have 26 to 29 toilets for that number of people, but it has only six, he said.

Whitmire said any place that can hold 1,000 or more people must have four exits, but Mosaic has only three. One is inadequate because it leads through a supply room.

The second-floor door leading to a parking lot facing Cherry Street can't be used because the parking lot is leased by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office. Mosaic doesn't have a written agreement with the department allowing patrons on the leased property, Whitmire said.

Reid "claimed there was a verbal agreement," Whitmire said. "But he couldn't tell us who he talked to."

That door has a large "Mosaic" sign over it and has been the commonly used entrance for entertainment events. A few yards to the left of the door a sign on the brick wall says the sheriff's office monitors the parking lot and unauthorized vehicles may be towed.

Sheriff Jim Hammond confirmed Thursday that his office leases the parking lot from Unum for jail employees to use during the day.

"I know they've [Mosaic church] used it in the past," he said, "kind of like squatter's rights."

He said the sheriff's office does not want anyone from Mosaic parking in the lot from now on and might post a sign to that effect in the future.

Whitmire acknowledged that, in years past, the city found nothing wrong at Mosaic in connection with code violations, but he said the recent complaints led to a full review of the venue. The city has such discretion in matters of public safety, he said.

Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth will oversee a hearing this morning on whether the Mosaic church can continue to operate.

Reid said that even if the church keeps going, there may need to be multiple services to stay within the 100-person guideline.

"We have more than 100 people," he said.

Reid also said the church may go ahead with its New Year's Eve party, just not at the Mosaic building.

He has contacted other churches in the area who are willing to host his event, he said, but would not identify them.