Liberty Theater turns 100

WENATCHEE — In 1919, the Liberty Theater in Wenatchee hosted vaudeville shows. A hundred years later, with a little remodeling, it hosts blockbusters like “Avengers: Endgame.”

Staff and community members are celebrating the downtown theater’s centennial this year.

“Most these old theaters with a stage and all that have been turned into performing arts centers or art houses — or they’re just gone,” said owner Brian Cook. “This is one of the few old theaters still running first-run movies. You know, stuff that was happening when it was built.”

Cook started at the theater in 1980. That’s where he met his wife, Anne. Her family, the Lasillas, bought the theater a few years before.

During this year’s Washington State Apple Blossom Festival, the theater had multiple showings of “A Lot of Fuss About a Parade,” a documentary recounting the festival’s 100th year.

Not unlike Apple Blossom, which has gone through several phases, keeping the theater going comes down to adapting, Cook said.

“Making the upgrades; turning it from one screen into three, obviously we had to convert to digital cinema a few years ago, but just to continue to update and expand,” Cook said. “When my wife’s family bought the theater in 1976, it was just one screen at the Liberty and one screen down the street.”

Now there are eight.

“Just make the upgrades and add screens and still make it a viable operation, replace seats, do what you gotta do,” Cook said.

Even if that means putting them in different buildings.

“It’s an unusual situation too, where you sell tickets here and you either come into this building or they go down the street,” Cook said. 

It’s easier to get tickets now, too. With online ticket sales, the days of lines wrapped around the block are mostly gone.

Cook’s brainstorming ways to honor the theater’s historic anniversary — maybe a showing of “The Wizard of Oz” — and he’ll likely link with the Wenatchee Valley Museum & Cultural Center, which houses the theater’s old organ, in the fall.

Until then, they’ll keep keepin’ on as they have for the last century.

“(We’re) still cranking out movies, still having fun a hundred years later,” Cook said. “Hopefully we’ll make it another hundred years, we’ll see.”

The Horan House has been demolished

WENATCHEE — The Horan House, a historic landmark that sat on the confluence of the Wenatchee and Columbia Rivers since 1899, has been demolished.

The building’s owner, Nevio Tontini, applied for a demolition permit for the structure in November and it was issued on Feb. 12 by the city of Wenatchee, according to city records.

Michael Horan, one of Wenatchee’s first developers and business, was the building’s first owner and its namesake. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and served as a popular restaurant in the 1980s and 1990s.

Port of Chelan County Commissioner and developer Rory Turner began exploring ways to save the building last fall, but no suitable use for it was found and the plan never got off the ground.

About 12 feet of the structure would have to be torn off before it could be moved, Turner said in February. Any remodel would have cost at least $500,000 to $600,000.

Now Turner is working with Nevio and Beth Dobbs, a Horan family member and the co-owner of Horan Estates Winery, to memorialize the site.

It’s unclear what the end result will be, but Turner said he’d like to see the site offer people river access and a chance to learn about the Horans’ history.

“What we’re trying to do is somehow get river access there, and hopefully some parking for people,” Turner said in an interview May 6. “We have access to one of the more unique areas of the river there.”

The Chelan County PUD, which recently purchased land near the site for a new consolidated headquarters, has been interested in the Horan property, Turner said, but no official deal has been made.

Council OKs downtown food drive-thrus

WENATCHEE — Downtown drive-thrus can be converted to drive-thru restaurants, the City Council has decided.

The council voted to amend the city code to allow the reuse of such drive-thrus, including the former Washington Federal Bank drive-thru at the intersection of Orondo Avenue and Mission Street.

Port of Chelan County Commissioner and developer Rory Turner co-owns that property and said he’s excited to put it to good use instead of letting it stay vacant. “I’m an adaptive reuse guy — that’s kind of what I do,” he said.

Turner said he wasn’t sure exactly what to do with the property, but Caffe Mela owner Kyle Hendrickson approached him about turning it into a coffee shop. Hendrickson said plans still are in the works but that it wasn’t a done deal.

“You couldn’t tear it down and put a Starbucks or McDonald’s there, but you could modify it for use by a private party,” Turner said.

The code revision, approved May 9 by the council, is limited to existing facilities in the Central Business District and Historic Entertainment Overlay.

“Currently the Historic Entertainment Overlay does not allow for the drive-thrus,” Planning Manager Stephen Neuenschwander told the council. “The Central Business District zoning does, but the overlay supersedes that.”

One resident at the May 9 meeting asked about potential traffic backups, but Mayor Frank Kuntz said he doesn’t foresee that being a problem.

Chipotle confirms it’s coming to Wenatchee in fall

WENATCHEE — Chipotle Mexican Grill is planning to open a restaurant in Wenatchee, a company spokeswoman confirmed May 13.

The location is expected to open "at some point in the fall," spokeswoman Regina Wu said.

The company doesn't have any other details to release at this time, she said. It’s unclear where the restaurant will be.

Chipotle posted a pair of openings — one general manager and service manager for Wenatchee-based jobs — for positions on the national recruiting site Indeed.com.

The jobs were posted by an official Chipotle account that currently has 4,431 other listings, including 65 in Washington.

“Chipotle is coming to Wenatchee and we are looking for a General Manager!” read one of the job descriptions.

The general manager position comes with a salary of $50,000 to $60,000 a year and full benefits, according to the listing. Two years of management experience and one year of experience as a general manager are required.

The service manager position lists a salary of $30,000 to $40,000 and full benefits. One year of management experience is required.

Former jail building in downtown Wenatchee now for sale

WENATCHEE — For years it was used as a Chelan County jail, then as a hotel, then as storage. Now pigeons are the only ones who call the Old City Jail Building home.

That could soon change — the 109-year-old building was put up for sale on May 1 for $200,000.

The building, which is only accessible from an alley on the corner of Kittitas Street and Wenatchee Avenue, is boarded up and will need extensive repairs, but the remodel possibilities are endless, real estate agent Glenda Travis said.

Travis went to the property owner, the Doneen Family Partnership, a few months ago to pitch the idea of putting it up for sale. They approved and now Travis is looking for a buyer.

“I’ve had a lot of interesting calls on it,” she said. “Everybody has always wondered what it is. Some investors or renovators want the building but they aren’t quite sure what to do with it.”

One condition of the sale is the building can’t be torn down, only renovated.

The listing will be open until July 31, then Travis will review the offers with the owners, she said.

It sits next to the old Chelan County courthouse building, but that property isn’t part of the deal, Travis said.

Because of the close proximity, the future of the building will largely depend on what happens to the neighboring parking lot on the northeast corner of Mission and Kittitas streets, she said.

The parking lot is owned by the city of Wenatchee, which is currently working on a deal to sell it to Kirkland-based Weidner Homes for a five-story apartment building.

Travis has heard Weidner is interested in acquiring the jail building, but hasn’t been in touch with the company directly, she said.

County works to create economic development position

WENATCHEE — The Chelan County Commission is working to create an economic development position.

The purpose of the position will be to attract businesses to unincorporated Chelan County, Commissioner Kevin Overbay said. It will be similar to a role played by Steve King for the city of Wenatchee.

The Chelan County Commission is developing the job description, Overbay said. The commission will later need to pass a formal resolution to create the position.

The county will fund the position using its distressed county sales taxes, which is earmarked for economic development, he said.

The person’s salary would depend on qualifications, but the position would likely pay more than $73,000, county Administrator Cathy Mulhall said during a county meeting Monday.

It will also be a three-year contracted position with the possibility of renewal depending on performance, Overbay said.

According to the draft description of the position, the employee would face some of the following duties and responsibilities:

  • Develop economic initiatives
  • Act as a county representative on boards and committees
  • Aid with tracking legislation
  • Identify grant funding opportunities and apply for grants

Additional business sales tax revenue would allow the county to provide services without increasing resident taxes, Overbay said.

The county has lost business revenue from the annexation of Olds Station by the city of Wenatchee, which cost the county about $1.5 million in taxes a year, he said. Another hit was the closure of the Alcoa plant near Malaga, which led to a $600 million economic regional loss since 2015, he said.

Confluence Health planning for leadership changes

WENATCHEE — Confluence Health will see some leadership changes during the next two years with the planned retirements of two of its top executives.

Confluence CEO Dr. Peter Rutherford is set to retire in the fall of 2021 and Dr. Stuart Freed, chief medical officer, is planning to retire in early 2020.

Both were involved in creating the affiliation of Central Washington Hospital and Wenatchee Valley Medical Center that in 2013 officially became Confluence Health. The organization now includes two hospitals and 11 community clinics and has more than 300 physicians and 4,000 employees across North Central Washington.

Exact dates for the retirements have not yet been announced, said Confluence Health spokesman Andrew Canning, but planning for the changes has started.

“Succession planning for our CEO/CMO has been ongoing for the past year and a half, so we are prepared for their respective exits,” Canning said.

Rutherford, an internist with the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center since 1990, replaced Dr. David Weber as CEO and chairman of the then-Wenatchee Valley Medical Center in 2011.

Born in Wenatchee, he attended kindergarten and first grade here before the family moved away for a time, returning when he was in high school. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Whitman College and, in 1982, his medical degree from the University of Washington.

He and his family returned after being offered the job at the medical center.

Freed also earned his medical degree from the University of Washington (1984). He is certified in family and sports medicine and previously served as WVMC’s chief medical officer and WVMC’s Orthopedics and Sports Medicine physician manager.

Business magazine in 2015 named Freed “outstanding medical director” outside the Puget Sound region for his role in creating the new management model that drew on guidelines from Virginia Mason Production systems to complete the affiliation and make significant changes in both inpatient and outpatient areas.

Studies planned for Douglas County pumped-storage facility

EAST WENATCHEE — The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has issued a preliminary permit for an approximately $600 million pumped-storage facility planned for Douglas County.

Boise, Idaho-based Gridflex Energy is the developer for the proposed Badger Mountain Pumped Storage Project. The closed-loop hydropower facility, featuring two artificial reservoirs joined by surface conduits, would be located about 20 miles northeast of Pangborn Memorial Airport.

Gridflex CEO Matthew Shapiro said the company could have begun conducting studies without the permit, which is more of a placeholder while it determines whether to apply for a license for the project.

“A lot of the work that will be done during the preliminary permit phase is a lot of desktop studies, some fieldwork and analyses,” Shapiro said. “We’ll certainly have engineers come and take a look at the site, do some evaluation of the features and the concept, and do some cost estimation on that. Certainly, water sourcing is an important series of discussions we’ll be having.”

The facility’s generating and pumping capacity would be 300 megawatts and annual gross energy production would be 473,040 megawatt hours.

Two main dams would be built: for the upper reservoir, up to 40 feet high and 7,500 feet long, and for the lower, 35 feet high and 800 feet long. A 10-foot-high, 830-foot-long supplemental dam would also be built for the lower reservoir. The facility would also include a steel and concrete powerhouse.

The preliminary permit is good for four years. Between the studies, license application and construction, Shapiro said 2025 or 2026 would be the earliest the facility would be operational.

“We’ve had some really good conversations with different parties in the area, and everyone seems to be very supportive so far,” he said. “We look forward to getting into some serious studies and seeing if we can turn this concept into reality.”

Fill water would most likely be purchased from the Greater Wenatchee Irrigation District, Shapiro said.

“We could do some groundwater studies, see if there’s any water right near the site to provide sufficient fill water,” he said. “That’s a question that we’ll talk to our engineers about and see if it’s likely that there might be enough there for that purpose. Otherwise, there is infrastructure nearby with the irrigation district.”

Gridflex listed the following studies in its proposal:

  • Environmental impact
  • Groundwater
  • Energy production
  • Water quality
  • Water rights
  • Engineering
  • Energy market
  • Transmission interconnection
  • Equipment configuration and sizing
  • Cost estimates
  • Land surveys

Shapiro said private investors would likely pay for the studies, which he estimates would cost $1 million to $1.5 million.

There are about 40 pumped-storage facilities in the country, including one in Grand Coulee.

In 2016, Shell proposed one near Bridgeport, about 7.5 miles upriver from Chief Joseph Dam. It would generate about 5 megawatts of renewable energy each day, drawing water from the Columbia River.

Douglas PUD OKs data center moratorium

EAST WENATCHEE — The Douglas County PUD Commission on May 13 instituted a moratorium on new power contracts with data centers and cryptocurrency mining operations.

This will let PUD staff review the utility’s current policies on the industries, which are referred to as non-diverse power loads, spokeswoman Meaghan Vibbert said May 17.

The move is partially in response to the state’s recently passed law that puts higher pressure on utilities to focus on renewable energy resources, Vibbert said.

“We wanted to take a break, see how all that is going to play out and what those impacts will be in the future,” she said.

There’s currently no end date for the moratorium. PUD staff will review the policies this summer and collect public feedback on the policies in the fall, Vibbert said.

The PUD is currently serving two large data centers near Pangborn Memorial Airport and a handful of cryptocurrency miners across the county.

PUD agrees to substation for Diamond Foundry

WENATCHEE — The County PUD Commission has approved an agreement with Stemilt Growers for the company to build a substation.

Stemilt Growers is leasing property on Hawley Street to the Diamond Foundry company in one of its former fruit warehouses.

The Diamond Foundry, which will make diamonds using high-heat plasma, needs 19 megawatts of power, requiring a new substation. Stemilt Growers has offered to build the substation, but needed to enter into an agreement with the PUD to do so.

The May 13 agreements voted on by the PUD commission will allow Stemilt Growers to build the substation, according to a news release.

Shopko optical lives on

WENATCHEE — The main Wenatchee Shopko store has closed, but its optical department will continue to operate as a freestanding store.

The optical department will be run out of the Shopko building until a new location is found, Shopko Interim CEO Jim Eisen said in an email May 17. The company’s real estate team is looking for a new home for the optical store.

Shopko declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January and later announced the closure more than 200 stores across the U.S. Both the Wenatchee location and a Shopko Hometown store in Quincy were on the list.

The company’s optical division was then purchased by investment company Monarch Alternative Capital, it announced in a press release last month.

The investment company is moving 80 Shopko Optical locations to freestanding locations across the U.S., including two others in Washington — in Spokane and Union Gap.

The company had 363 stores around the country and more than 18,000 employees before the bankruptcy, according to its website.

3-D mammography machine improves cancer detection

WENATCHEE — Cascade Medical Center purchased a technology that increases the detection rate of breast cancer.

The 3-D machine creates an image that radiologists can rotate, spin and scroll through.

The medical center replaced their 2-D machine, which was getting old, in March, said Scott Mitchell, radiology director. The change also coincided with new mammography regulations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The biggest difference between the 2-D and 3-D machines is that the 2-D scan was just a static image, he said. The 3-D model allows radiologists to scroll behind ducts and blood vessels to look at little lesions and nodules.

There has been some debate about the benefits of mammograms in recent years. A 2016 study questioned the value of mammograms and argued mammograms have not increased the detection of aggressive cancers since 1970, according to an article by Robert H. Shermling, Harvard Health Publishing faculty editor.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention also says there is a chance for overdiagnosis, which can lead to expensive overtreatment. The CDC recommends women talk to their doctors to decide if they should receive mammograms.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, though, has changed policies around mammograms, according to a FDA news release. It is the first time in over 20 years that the FDA has changed rules for mammograms.

The amendments require health professionals to report breast density as part of a mammogram, according to the news release. Women with higher breast density can have an increased risk of breast cancer.

Cascade Medical Center’s 3-D mammography machine automatically calculates breast density, Mitchell said.

The machine also automatically knows how much pressure to apply to a woman’s breasts when performing the exam, he said. It also knows the amount of radiation needed to get an accurate image. It can reduce the radiation exposure for less dense tissues.

“For the most part most patients are probably not going to notice much of a difference from what they’ve already got,” Mitchell said.