AUGUSTA — About 100 local players of wallyball — a version of volleyball played in a racquetball court — a seeking a new venue to practice their sport.

The fall season never began at Flight II on Water Street after building owner Karen Hatch decided it was financially unfeasible to do the improvements required by the city’s code enforcement office.

Barry Bernier, 56, of Vassalboro, who has played on those courts for more than 20 years, is sad to see their demise.

“I hate to see it go,” he said on Wednesday. “At one time I was playing there two to three times a week.”

He and seven others would gather to play anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours. In recent years, it’s more for fun than sport.

“I don’t heal as fast as I used to,” he said. “It’s just for fun and a little exercise.”

Hatch, who owns the building at 333-339 Water St. and operated Flight II at 335 Water St., is disappointed at having to close the courts as well. It means a business loss of $25,000 annually, money that went to heat the building, originally erected about 1900.

Along with closing the courts, the residential units were vacated as well.

“It’s sad that it’s empty,” Hatch said. “It was a vibrant building.”

The building was inspected at a tenant’s request in November 2015, and Hatch received a citation from the city codes office in April 2016 saying the building was out of compliance with the current safety code, which prohibits “assembly occupancy” above the second story of this type of building, among other things.

“Assembly occupancy” is defined in that 2009 code as “an occupancy used for a gathering of 50 or more persons for deliberation, worship, entertainment, eating, drinking, amusement, awaiting transportation or similar uses; or used as a special amusement building regardless of occupant load.”

The two wallyball/racquetball courts are on the fifth floor and the Augusta Taekwondo Center was on the sixth floor. That, too, had to move, Hatch said. It is now at the Buker Community Center. Violations cited at the 333-339 Water St. building included lack of an exit in addition to the main exit, inadequate fire separation for exits and other problems.

Hatch was given 90 days to discontinue the assembly occupancy and to take a number of other corrective actions, including seeking either subdivision approval or permanently discontinuing the use of all but two apartments in the building.

She said she initially wanted to file a court appeal, but she decided against it.

Augusta Code Enforcement Officer Robert Overton said Thursday that the building’s problems are similar to those at 275-287 Water St., which is being redeveloped by new owner Richard Parkhurst.

Hatch said she concluded it was not financially feasible to do the improvements because her building is under contract to be sold to an out-of-state developer with plans to create residential units.

To do so, the new owner will have to bring the building up to code.

Records at the city’s assessor’s office show that at one time the commercial tenants included Partridge’s Pharmacy, Guido’s Wine Cellar restaurant, the Painted Horse toy store, offices and a beauty salon.

Originally built as an office building, one of the upper floors was outfitted as the meeting-and-dining room of the Odd Fellows, where cupboards for clothes and drawers for dishes line one wall.

Hatch bought the building 17 years ago, around the time Capital Kids’ The Edge, a teen center, opened there.

Now upper floors of the building, which had held seven housing units as well as a fitness center and a dance studio, are empty.

The ground floor, where the six-level building has commercial tenants, is unaffected; as is River Back, a private function room that opens onto the Kennebec River on the Front Street side of the building.

“I acquired the building and learned as I went,” Hatch said, leading a tour of the upper floors Thursday.

She shone a light into a sauna and opened a walk-in safe.

At one point, she and other family members lived in the building. She recently bought a home in China.

Hatch is director of the city’s Child Care Bureau. On Thursday, City Manager William Bridgeo said that fact worked neither for nor against her.

“She has the right, as any other property owner, to fair treatment; and the responsibility, as any other owner of commercial property would have,” he said. “Codes has attempted to be as understanding and accommodating as possible while not making any compromises that in any way compromise public safety.”

According to the American Wallyball Association website, www.wallyball.com, the game has more than 15 million players “in over 85,300 facilities worldwide.” The sport started in Illinois in 1971 and gained ground rapidly when it hit California in 1979.

Darryl Touchett, 55, of Oakland, has played wallyball for at least 12 years.

“The worse thing for me was all the towns, including Augusta, are trying to get more people to go downtown,” he said. “I went downtown to play wallyball. And now I have no reason to go downtown.”

Those who played with Touchett had a court reserved every Thursday for the past 10 years. He said there was a core group of eight people with some occasional subs.

“It’s a fast pace and it doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or an advanced beginner; you could pick up the game fast,” he said.

Now one of his teammates has found a spot for their wallyball game to continue on a racquetball court at Champions in Waterville.

Jane Belanger, 55, of Winthrop, has played for the past couple of years. “It was just a get-together with old friends and new friends,” she said. “We just played for kind of a social get-together on Tuesday nights. The court next to us had people from their work.”

Now, she said, “we don’t go. We all miss it, but we’re not driving to Waterville or any other further location.”

Belanger said she’ll return to her golf game in the spring and that several other former wallyball players have turned to pickleball, which can be played in a court or in a yard.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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