Evicted tenant to sue State Theatre owner


photo/Chris Busby
photo/Chris Busby

Evicted tenant to sue State Theatre owner 
Building unsafe; comedy, rock shows moved

By Chris Busby

The former manager of the historic State Theatre on Congress Street intends to sue the owner of the building, Grant Wilson of Stone Coast Properties, claiming Wilson deceived him into signing a multi-year lease last summer by failing to disclose fire safety issues and the venue’s true seating capacity.

The manager, Chris Morgan, was evicted from the theater earlier this month for failure to pay rent and other lease violations, according to court documents. 

In a press release sent today by Augusta attorney Roger Katz, Morgan’s lawyer, Katz claims that Wilson made “serious false statements to Morgan to induce him into the lease.” Among those alleged statements is the claim that Wilson told Morgan the theater was licensed to hold 1,750 people.

In fact, the theater’s legal capacity is 1,450.

Without those additional 300 seats, Morgan was unable to make a profit booking concerts at the theater, Katz wrote. He also said Morgan is distressed that Wilson allowed him to fill the venue well beyond its true legal capacity, “putting many lives at risk.”

“We are so lucky that we didn’t have a tragic situation like what happened in Rhode Island,” Katz wrote, quoting Morgan. One hundred people died and nearly 200 were injured when a fire broke out in a crowded Rhode Island nightclub in 2002.

Reached by phone today and appraised of Morgan’s claims, Wilson said he “made no representations” as to the building’s condition or seating capacity during lease negotiations last summer. 

“There was a failure on [Morgan’s] part to do due diligence, that’s for sure,” said Wilson, who previously owned the restaurant and music venue Stone Coast Brewing Company, on York Street. 

Wilson also said he had not personally been operating the theater during the years prior to Morgan’s tenancy, so he was not aware of the venue’s legal capacity. 

Katz claims officials with the State Fire Marshall’s Office told Morgan that Wilson was aware the theater can only legally hold 1,450 people. State fire officials inspected the theater last Dec. 2, and found that the capacity had been exceeded, according to court documents.

Nelson Collins, the official who supervises licensing and inspections for the State Fire Marshall’s Office, said there are “several large issues” related to fire safety that need to be addressed before the venue can host concerts again. They include the replacement or repair of stairways outside the building, electrical work, the repair or replacement of fire exit doors, and other code violations.

Collins said state officials informed Morgan of these problems last year, but allowed him to continue to operate the venue because the violations were not severe enough to warrant closure, and they expected them to be rectified in the near future. 

“It’s called ‘voluntary compliance,'” said Collins. “If you shut them down, usually they don’t have an income to fix the problems. If [the problems] are severe enough, we won’t allow them to operate.”

Now that Morgan is gone, the theater is no longer licensed to host concerts, Collins said. 

The only two shows scheduled for the State Theatre are being moved to other venues, said Lauren Wayne of Tea Party Concerts, a division of Clear Channel Entertainment, which had exclusive rights to book entertainment at the State under Morgan’s management. The April 29 performance by comedian Brian Regan is being moved to Merrill Auditorium, the city-owned auditorium behind Portland City Hall. The concert by the rock band Saves the Day, scheduled to take place at the State on May 4, is being moved to the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, in New Hampshire.

Wilson said he has already begun to address some of the fire safety issues, and has been in contact with “a whole slew of people who are interested in operating the theater.”

In the lease Morgan and Wilson signed last summer, there is no mention of the theater’s seating capacity. The agreement also stipulates the Morgan accepts the theater “as is… and acknowledges that [he] has not been induced to enter into this Lease by any representation or statement of Landlord as to the condition of the Premises, or of any portion or aspect thereof.”

Katz said regardless of that stipulation, Wilson misrepresented the theater’s condition before the lease was signed, and “it will be for the jury to find out who is believable at this point.”

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