The struggling Columbia City Cinema is closing after Thursday night because its operators can't afford a sprinkler system. "It's been a long...

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The struggling Columbia City Cinema is closing after Thursday night because its operators can’t afford a sprinkler system.

“It’s been a long great run, but it’s over,” reads the cinema’s website. “The cinema is closed. The city killed it.”

The city of Seattle, however, says the cinema operator chose to close rather than comply with requirements of the Seattle Fire Marshal.

The theater’s owner, Paul Doyle, said in an email he hadn’t been able to raise any money for the sprinkler system because the cinema has been struggling to survive.

But with a planned coupon initiative and summer blockbusters on the way, he’d expected the cinema would be able to raise $40,000 within the next couple of months — if the city gave him more time to comply with safety regulations.

He also posted a statement on the cinema’s website, which includes an email it says was sent to city officials.

“The saner part of the city will view this as epic stupidity and unfairness,” that email says. “You should all be ashamed of yourselves for your smallness, lack of vision and the damage you have done. It is city dysfunction at its worst and a major betrayal of the Columbia City community.”

Cinema manager Tanya McKechnie said the theater can’t immediately afford the $80,000 for a sprinkler system. If the city had given the theater another two months, she said, it likely could have come up with enough money to start putting in sprinklers.

In his email, Doyle said a contractor had agreed to start putting in sprinklers without a down payment. But on the theater website, he says the city did not give him enough time to raise about $35,000 needed for the first phase of installation.

The cinema, which has operated on Rainier Avenue South for seven years, is the only movie theater in the area, McKechnie said.

The theater was never in compliance with safety regulations, said Bryan Stevens of the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

He said Doyle never had the proper permit to operate a cinema. He had been issued a temporary permit from the city Fire Department, which has expired, Stevens said.

Because a proper permit was never issued, Stevens said, there’s been no inspection of the building’s framing and wiring. But the lack of a sprinkler system was the primary issue.

Doyle had obtained a construction permit to establish an assembly hall in 2008, Stevens said.

Although the permit was not the correct one, it still required that sprinklers be installed, he said. The city had been working with Doyle for about a year to try to bring the theater into compliance with safety regulations, Stevens said.

“But it was clear to us in December he was no longer making progress,” he said. “We’ve given him extensions. He shouldn’t be in the space at all. It’s unfortunate he chose to close his doors.”

The cinema has three theaters, two downstairs with 200 seats total, and one upstairs that last year the city told Doyle to cut from 200 seats to 49 because of the fire-safety issue, McKechnie said.

After that, she said, the cinema lost at least $6,000 a month along with the ability to rent out the upstairs lounge.

“They’ve made it impossible for us to come up with the $80,000 at this time, but we have a lot of community support, people have been pouring in money,” she said. “We were able to get caught up, which means we would have been able to get the money for the sprinkler system.”

McKechnie said closing the theater will cost 12 jobs.

In the email to the city, posted on its website, the cinema says, “You have finally forced us out of business, which seems to have been your intent from the beginning. First you declared war on us, then you crippled us, then you killed us. We will not attempt to reopen.”

The cinema has had a troubled history. Last year, for example, state regulators ordered it to stop selling stock, claiming the theater violated securities laws and misled investors.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com