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New law puts squeeze on local dance floors

There’s going to be a little less wiggle room on dance floors around Spokane.

A new state law taking effect Tuesday is putting the squeeze on nightclubs with designated dance floor space as a way to prevent another disaster like the 2003 fire that killed 100 people at a Rhode Island club.

Under the new law, local clubs can either install costly fire sprinklers; add more seating and shrink the dance floor area; or simply shut down.

While many Spokane venues are opting to change their floor plans to come into compliance, one is changing its location altogether.

Empyrean Coffee House is moving from its current home at 154 S. Madison St. to The Big Dipper building at 171 S. Washington St.

The Big Dipper does not have sprinklers, and that won’t change when Empyrean moves in at the first of the year. But the floor plan is being altered, which will lower the maximum occupancy to around 110, bringing it closer to Empyrean’s existing capacity in its main music viewing area.

Other substantial changes prompted by the new law are at Dempsey’s Brass Rail, where sprinklers were recently installed; and at Caterina Winery, which temporarily reduced its capacity to come into compliance, but is closing for most of January for renovations that will add exits to allow for higher occupancy.

Empyrean’s decision to relocate is influenced by both the sprinkler law and the rising rent promised over the next couple of years at its current location, said owner Chrisy Riddle.

It doesn’t make good business sense to pay for the installation of sprinklers in a building she doesn’t own, she said.

“The way I explain it to my students is that it would be like renting a car and pimping it out,” said Riddle, who is also an English teacher at Central Valley High School.

While Empyrean isn’t adding sprinklers at the new location, Riddle said a number of improvements will be made to The Big Dipper, funded by the $3,700 raised through benefit shows and donations to save the Empyrean over the past few months.

Installation of sprinklers at the current location would cost a little under $10,000, she said.

“People want Empyrean to be around, so we feel like it’s an appropriate use of the money,” Riddle said. “We didn’t want to be so strapped for cash from putting in the sprinklers that we can’t make it through the summer.”

Empyrean will proceed with an altered floor plan until the move in January.

The Big Dipper was previously managed by Christian-heavy nonprofit all-ages music group RAWK The Inland Northwest. But RAWK recently pulled out rather than pay for sprinklers or operate at a reduced capacity.

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