Downtown Pasco is dealing with a devastating fire at one of its well-known buildings for the second time in less than a month.
No one was displaced from home because of the fire late Tuesday at the Liberty Theater, unlike the July 20 fire at the Sacajawea Apartments. But while the six-story apartment building can be repaired, the historic theater at 114 N. Fourth Ave. is being demolished, leaving a noticeable hole in downtown Pasco.
The theater, which was being redeveloped for retail, was on a block between Lewis and Clark streets. The city council voted Monday to pay for a study on making the streets a one-way couplet as part of a downtown revitalization plan. The plan includes landscaping and improved access for pedestrians and bicyclists.
The theater has a colorful history dating back to 1914, when it opened.
Pasco residents helped pay for the theater in 1912 by donating $15 apiece, according to the Franklin County Historical Society's archives.
The fire not only destroyed years of memories, it also left a hole in the center of Pasco's retail market, said Mitch Nickolds, Pasco's inspection services manager.
"We were looking forward to having the building in use in the center of our city," he said. "Unfortunately, we are sustaining a loss that will create a deficit in our retail space in the coming years."
The theater played host to Eastern Washington's first movie with sound, Fox Movietone Follies of 1929, according to Herald archives.
In 1941, Liberty's screen featured Million Dollar Baby, with "Pasco's own movie star" Maris Wrixon and Ronald Reagan, according to an advertisement.
Through the years, the theater also featured minstrel shows, talent competitions and graduations before it was turned into an X-rated theater after being purchased by Roger Forbes in 1976. The theater has been closed since 1989, despite at least three attempts to reopen it.
After the fire, the theater is just a shell.
Rick White, the city of Pasco's community and economic development director, said adjacent buildings to the theater also could have problems because of unstable walls.
"It's not going to be a good impact, that's for sure," White said of what will happen downtown.
The Sacajawea Apartments and Liberty Theater sites could remain empty for a while, White said.
"These things get really complicated when you get your insurance involved," he said. "It takes way longer than people think it should."
The theater building had seen a "good deal" of renovations since it was taken over by Octavio Rodriguez of West Richland, White said.
Rodriguez declined to comment to the Herald.
Rodriguez told the Herald last year that he was turning the 11,400-square-foot building into retail space, but wanted to restore its historic facade.
The renovations Rodriguez made to the building helped increase its assessed value from $55,100 in 2013 to $226,700 in 2014, according to the Franklin County Assessor's Office.
Some in the community have ideas for what can go in the theater site.
Michael Goins, executive director of the Downtown Pasco Development Authority, said the site of the Liberty Theater could be used as a new business or as park space, though he would like to see the nearby Peanuts Park better utilized before building another park.
"The biggest thing is making sure there is a strong community presence and people are proud of Pasco," Goins said. "I do think it is something we can overcome."
Addressing downtown parking needs is the best use for the Liberty Theater site, said City Councilman Al Yenney, who went to the theater a couple times after moving to Pasco in 1959.
While he feels bad for the theater's owner, he sees the recent U.S. Postal Service's plans to close the downtown Pasco post office as a bigger issue than the fires at the Liberty Theater and Sacajawea Apartments.
"It's just another blow to downtown," he said.
But downtown has a good deal to offer, Yenney said. He points to the Pasco Farmers Market and businesses like Viera's Bakery.
"I actually think downtown Pasco has a great future," he said. "It's mostly Hispanic now. I drive through there seven, eight times a week. It's amazing how much activity there is downtown."
Sherel Webb, administrator of the Franklin County Historical Museum, said hearing that the Liberty Theater had burned reminded her of the 2001 fire at the Moore Mansion.
"It's such an icon to our members," she said. "I hope they'll be able to do something to honor that memory."
-- Reporter Tyler Richardson contributed to this report.
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; email@example.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom