Exit access keeps Prineville theater from reopening

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: March 02. 2007 5:00AM PST

Just more than a month after announcing that they had purchased Prineville’s historic Pine Theater, Oniko and Ali Mehrabi say it will not be possible after all to start showing movies there again.

The couple have not been able to secure access to the rear exit of the building, located on Main Street in downtown Prineville, because the area in front of the existing back door is part of a neighboring property.

“We’re not going to be able to open it as a movie theater like we’d like,” Oniko Mehrabi said. “We thought we would get access, and since then things have changed.”

Doug Wetter, a Bend resident who owns the building next door with his son-in-law, said he was not aware the theater had been sold until the Mehrabis called to discuss the exit issue.

His property extends behind the Pine Theater, where its back door is located.

“Our plans, perhaps, are to go ahead and build onto the back portion of the lot, which means there wouldn’t be any way to exit them,” Wetter said. “We want to keep our options open. We don’t want to squeeze ourselves out – that would diminish the value of our property significantly if we wanted to develop it in the future.”

The front entrance to the Pine Theater, with its decades-old marquee, is a familiar sight in downtown Prineville.

The maximum occupancy for a building with only one entrance and exit is 50 people, Crook County Building Director Mike Finley said.

“We’re unable to attain rear-exit access, so therefore it changes the capacity from 300 to 50,” Oniko Mehrabi said. “It would still be a really nice dinner theater.”

The Mehrabis, who purchased the shuttered Pine Theater a few months ago from Prineville lawyer Jim Van Voorhees, now plan to put the building up for sale again. Oniko Mehrabi said she is hoping that someone with ideas for entertainment options in Prineville will buy it, and she added that she and her husband are thinking of opening a video arcade in the future.

“You wouldn’t want me to cook you dinner – I can barely boil water – so I’m not interested at all in having a restaurant,” she said. “We’ll sell it to somebody who’s creative and is going to bring something to Prineville, because that building doesn’t need to sit empty again for another 20 years.”

Wetter said that he and his son-in-law have owned the building to the north of the Pine Theater for about a year. They are currently in the process of renting out the empty office space.

“I feel badly that she’s in that situation,” Wetter said. “We’re not trying to be bad guys, but on the other hand, we’re not in the position to be the solution to her problem, either, without jeopardizing the value of our property.”

Oniko Mehrabi said that she and her husband have talked with county and city building officials and “exhausted” all the possibilities for getting around the exit problem.

Finley, the building director, said the Mehrabis would need to obtain an easement from Wetter and his son-in-law.

“That has always been the hang-up of that theater, and you have no other option to put (the exit) in a different location because they have built buildings right up to the back wall there,” Finley said.

The Pine Theater operated from 1938 until the early 1980s. It has remained empty since then, and Prineville currently has no movie theater. Oniko Mehrabi said that work is continuing to clear out the building and that, if she and her husband don’t sell it, they will begin renting the office space above the theater in mid-April. She suggested that it could be used for smaller or private movie screenings or as a restaurant, but added that the financial plan she and her husband developed was for a mainstream movie theater.

“If push comes to shove, we’ll just rent out all the parts, but that’s not what we needed – we need a movie theater,” she said. “We’re hoping that someone will come along that has the creativity and vision for something like this.”

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