HALLOWELL — Two women with drinks in hand sat on a couch in the middle of Higher Grounds, facing a band playing lively covers of rock songs. Other patrons at the downtown bar either sat on the several chairs to the side or stood at a high table, talking quietly.
The set-up resembled a living room more than a dance floor in a bar known for its live music.
Higher Grounds hasn’t allowed dancing since state fire marshal’s officials visited the bar two weeks ago for an unannounced inspection during a sweep of nine area bars.
Sam Shain, who performed in front of the seated crowd last weekend with his band, echoed the bar owner’s call for no dancing, and signs posted on the walls declared the edict that dancing wasn’t allowed.
“It was really weird,” Shain said of the playing in front of a still crowd. “We’re a pretty danceable funk band, and we’re (usually) playing to a room that’s pretty crazy. And everyone was just sitting there because they had to. It just kind of takes the heart out of it.”
Higher Grounds — like nearly every other bar in Hallowell — doesn’t have a dance license, which the state requires for any buildings with at least occasional public dancing.
Sgt. Ken Grimes of the State Fire Marshal’s Office said he and three other officials visited the area bars because the office had received a complaint about Shenanigans nightclub in Augusta using plastic sheeting on the walls and ceiling for a recent party.
“When we’re out checking a complaint, then it’s a judicious use of our time to check the others as well,” he said.
Some bar patrons have likened the fire marshal’s actions to the plot of the popular 1984 movie “Footloose,” in which dancing and rock music are banned in a small town.
The uproar among Hallowell bar patrons following the surprise inspections soon reached the ears and inboxes of city officials and state legislators.
Rep. Sharon Treat, who represents her hometown, Hallowell, along with Farmingdale and West Gardiner, said she received about 20 phone calls, emails and Facebook messages about the “ban on dancing.”
“It was more than I got on the concealed-weapon permit issue,” Treat said, referring to the bill recently signed into law that makes personal information of permit holders private. “So this is very important to my district.”
The bars without dance licenses have all applied to the State Fire Marshal’s Office and will be subject to inspections to ensure the locations meet minimum standards outlined in the Life Safety Code — a nationally recognized guidebook for fire safety.
The codes include requirements for the numbers of exits, occupancy and other standards to ensure safety in an emergency. Owners also must pay a $117 application fee.
Assistant Fire Marshall Richard McCarthy said the dance license law and fire codes requirements are meant to keep patrons safe in riskier situations.
He mentioned The Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island a decade ago, which killed 100 people, as a worst-case scenario for fire marshal officials.
“When people are out having fun, a lot of times the safety part is not on the top of their minds,” McCarthy said.
The state lists the dance license status as pending for Higher Grounds, Easy Street Lounge, Hoxter’s Music & Sports Bar and the Liberal Cup, all in Hallowell.
None of those Water Street bars has ever held a dance license, according to the state’s online database.
The Wharf’s license is expired, and owner Tim Connelly said it’s because the fire marshal’s office hadn’t sent a notice, as it usually does.
He filed for the license renewal the next day, he said.
Municipalities aren’t required to alert business owners that the state requires dance licenses, but it helps keep state inspectors from running into situations like this if they do, McCarthy said.
Hallowell City Manager Michael Starn said the City Council doesn’t check to see if businesses have dance licenses before approving liquor licenses.
“People who are doing live music and having dancing should know that dance permits are required,” he said.
City officials would inform the businesses if asked or if it came up in a conversation, Starn said.
Besides the Hallowell bars and Shenanigans, the fire marshal officials visited the Front Street Grill in Augusta and The Bench, The Depot and the Water Street Grill in Gardiner.
Let us dance
In response to complaints from business owners, Sen. Patrick Flood, R-Winthrop, helped organize a meeting last week of the fire marshal, the assistant fire marshal, Hallowell’s mayor, bar owners, Treat and himself.
Shain posted Treat’s and Flood’s phone numbers during his show last weekend, but the legislators don’t know whether that prompted some of the calls.
Those at the April 22 meeting at the fire marshal’s office said they left feeling more positive about the chances of the issue being resolved successfully.
Higher Grounds owner Jessica Moreau said she got the impression that the fire marshal officials want to work with the individual business in finding what can be done to bring the spaces up to code.
“I came away feeling good from it. I came away feeling they understood our situation,” she said. “I felt more positive about it after I walked out the door.”
Moreau, who tended bar at Higher Grounds for two years before owning it, bought the business last March without knowing she needed a dancing license, she said.
She filed for a permit last August but was denied because the space needed a sprinkler system and a larger emergency exit.
Moreau said the work would have cost $30,000 to $40,000, and she didn’t want to invest that much in a place she didn’t own.
So patrons continued to dance at Higher Grounds, as they had done for years before Moreau owned it.
Moreau now tells patrons to not dance until she is issued the license.
“No one came out to Hallowell last weekend,” she said. “It was as slow as it can be. I’m just trying to keep a positive message — still come out and support us while we all work through this.”
Pub, not a dance hall
Hoxter’s is a newer addition to the downtown scene, opening nearly three years ago.
Owner Louise Harwood said the business has scheduled a visit with the fire marshal’s office in the coming week to find out what’s needed to obtain a dance license. Kennebec Journal reporter Susan Cover co-owns Hoxter’s.
Harwood said the bar didn’t have a dance license previously because they didn’t consider it a dance club. It hosts live bands, and people occasionally dance, Harwood said.
“We consider ourselves part of the vibrant downtown, and we cherish live music,” she said. “All of us want everybody to be safe and have fun.”
Easy Street Lounge is another downtown bar that opened during the last three years. It hosts live music and occasional dancing. Owner Bruce Mayo declined to comment for the story.
The Liberal Cup is primarily a restaurant and brew pub, but customers occasionally dance to the live bands. Owner Geoff Houghton said he didn’t know he needed a dance license until the fire marshal officials visited two weeks ago.
“I’m a pub. I’m not a dance hall,” Houghton said. “Sometimes people sway to the music. I never thought in a million years I would need a dance license.”
Houghton said he thinks it’s unfortunate that attention has been drawn to all the bars downtown because of the issue.
Mayor Charlotte Warren said the threat of bars not being able to allow dancing caused a lot of concern for her and the city councilors.
She said one of things she’s most proud of from her 12 years of involvement in municipal government is the bustling downtown.
“I often say,” Warren said, “no city in Maine knows how to celebrate itself more than Hallowell.”
Paul Koenig — 621-5663