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Fifth Row Center to leave downtown Flowery Branch
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Nonprofit community theater Fifth Row Center has announced it will move out of downtown Flowery Branch.

The group was notified in May that it would be required to either cease hosting performances at its Main Street studio or bring the structure up to fire code as required by Hall County Fire Services.

Theater founder and artistic director Donna Chalmers has since announced that the theater will move. According to its website, costumes will be housed at the Buford Community Theater during the interim. Chalmers has said she is not at liberty to discuss the new location until the contract is finalized.

“Emotions range from being nervous to being excited and scared,” Chalmers said in an email about the theater’s plans.

The theater underwent inspection by the fire marshal’s office in May and was found to be delinquent under its current use. On its initial business application, Fifth Row Center was listed for use as a studio theater with unknown and varied hours that would host rehearsals, classes and costume storage. This description fit under the city’s “business occupancy use.”

“It was our understanding at the time of the final inspection on October 26, 2010,” said fire inspector Lt. Dax Lewis in a May 1 fire inspection letter, “that (Fifth Row Center) was using the structure for the purposes of teaching individuals in the art of theater. It has now been brought to our attention that the structure has recently been used for public performances in the theater, as well as for the purpose of church meetings.”

According to fire code regulations, this would change the designation from business occupancy to assembly occupancy and require substantial fire safety enhancement, including replacing doors, adding panic hardware, reconfiguring lighting and electrical components and building a fire barrier between the storage and performance areas.

To remain in its current historic district location, the theater would have to undertake fire safety renovations at its expense.

Bill Andrew, city manager of Flowery Branch, said Chalmers never indicated she would be using the space for performances.

“In the paperwork, she said that she would be using the space for storage, classes and office,” he said.

Andrew said the illegal use of the property was brought to the city’s attention earlier this year by someone who was subleasing the Fifth Row Center facility for church meetings.

“She (Chalmers) wasn’t allowed to sublease the property, since we owned the property,” said Andrew.

Andrew also stated that church meetings and performances were not authorized there due to a lack of parking. The available parking is intended to also serve the other businesses along Main Street.

The city also had concerns, said Andrew, about extension cord use and lighting not fulfilling code requirements.

“We can’t have that kind of setup in an older wooden building,” said Andrew. “When it comes to health and safety, we have to stand firm.”

According to Andrew, Chalmers also requested that her patrons be allowed to use the restroom inside the Flowery Branch Train Depot, adjacent to the theater. The theater contains only one restroom.

The city manager said that the request was deemed “inappropriate” due to the depot’s rental for weddings and receptions and concerns that its use by the theater students and patrons may be disruptive. According to Andrew, he gave Chalmers the option of renting the space for its facilities, which she declined, he said.

“We see the arts and theaters being a component of (the downtown redevelopment),” said Andrew, adding that he believes Flowery Branch has done everything in its power to help Fifth Row Center maintain its business in the city, including a greatly reduced rent in 2011.

Plans to have an outdoor amphitheater ready for use for Fifth Row Center theater camps by 2014 are in progress, said Hall County Commissioner Craig Lutz. The amphitheater is in the plans for the new South Hall park on Blackjack Road in Lutz’s district.

“We intend on seeking input from members of Fifth Row Center to ensure that whatever is built will meet their needs,” said Lutz. “We would appreciate any design input from Donna Chalmers.”

According to reports, Fifth Row Center hosted 23 shows during its three-year tenure in Flowery Branch, with more than 100 crew members and 252 actors playing 339 roles. These figures include performances held both at the Main Street location as well as at other venues.