Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Plan to Partition Auditorium Draws Negative Reviews; Fernandina: Theater Groups Say No

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Plan to Partition Auditorium Draws Negative Reviews; Fernandina: Theater Groups Say No

Article excerpt

Byline: Alison Trinidad, Nassau Neighbors staff writer

Area theater officials appealed to the Nassau County School Board Thursday to reconsider plans to cut in half the Fernandina Beach Middle School auditorium, which was closed this month due to fire code violations.

School Board members said Thursday this was the first they'd heard of the violations or the partitioning proposal, which Superintendent John Ruis said may be the best way to re-open the auditorium.

But arts advocates said it would be a mistake to partition the middle school stage, arguably the closest thing to a civic auditorium in Nassau County.

"It's the only game in town, the only place in the county you can do theater," said longtime resident Joanne Bean, who hosts annual dance recitals on the middle school stage.

After an inspection in February, City Fire Marshal Jeffrey Bunch said the school needed to add sprinklers, install a fire curtain and put in smoke vents on the stage. A few emergency lights were out, some boxes and flammable materials were stored incorrectly, and a tree outside the building was blocking a fire hydrant.

This was Bunch's first inspection of the school after a new state law gave local fire marshals the power to inspect -- and shut down -- schools for fire code violations. While fire marshals previously were responsible for inspecting schools, they couldn't force districts to correct problems.

Bunch ordered the auditorium to close after all scheduled programs were completed. Oliver!, a musical featuring 100 cast members, was the last production performed on the stage before it shut down.

"They are not supposed to use the building until they correct the violations," Bunch said.

At the School Board meeting, Ruis said it would cost more than the district could afford to bring the 2,000-square-foot auditorium to code. Ruis did not have cost estimates available at the meeting.

Fernandina Beach City Commissioner Beano Roberts, a middle school volunteer who for years has lobbied for the school auditorium's renovation, said closing half the stage to save money was unbelievable. …

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