GUNNISON Within two steps of the open doors of the Casino Star Theatre in Gunnison, the smell of gas is so pungent that one pauses, momentarily but abruptly, before stepping the rest of the way into the building.
For some time to come, though, most people won't have to worry about that, since those doors won't be opening to the public again until the fumes and the 20,000-gallon gas leak that caused them are taken care of.
"The theater will be closed for the foreseeable future," announced Peter Stirba Friday during a press conference in the theater's lobby, where gas fumes were thick enough to cause light-headedness after about 15 minutes, followed a few minutes later by a metallic taste and tingling sensation in the mouth.
Stirba is the attorney representing Gunnison city and others, including the theater's owners, in the wake of a Top Stop store's massive underground fuel leak that has raised frantic concern in the city.
This week, the city's environmental consultant, Lance Hess, began testing the air in residences and businesses in areas known to be affected by the leak. Air tests in the theater revealed levels of benzene that were approaching safety-standard limits and continuing to increase they had quadrupled in only two days, according to Hess.
Stirba said it was the latest example of the effects of an "environmental disaster."
"Residents of the city have already experienced toxic levels of benzene in their homes and businesses, which has created considerable issues of public health," he said. "This symbolizes the catastrophic nature of this incident. It is a tragedy for this community."
The theater is one of the city's jewels and a state landmark that was placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1987.
Its importance as the premier cultural and historical icon of the city is shown by the efforts of its current owners, Lori Nay (who is also a city councilwoman) and Diana Major Spencer to restore it to the original grandeur it had when built in 1913.
Since that time, it has been in operation for all but about two months, and Nay and Spencer boast that it is the nation's longest-running theater.
The two purchased the building in 2004 after a 20-year dream of having it come up for sale so they could save it through historical preservation. The project became their passion, and in three years the restoration effort has cost countless hours and about $50,000 in addition to the building's purchase price.
"This is heartbreaking for us," Spencer said. "It's been so much a part of our lives."
Spencer and Nay said that although the theater is closed for showings and performances, the restoration work on the building's exterior will proceed as planned.
The theater is the sixth business to close because of the leak, and business at other Main Street locations has dwindled since early August, when the leak forced Main Street businesses to evacuate for a day. The cost to the city in lost infrastructure and beautification projects is already in the tens of thousands of dollars and will almost certainly become greater.
But the closure of the theater strikes a different chord.
"(The effect on businesses) strikes at the pocketbook of the community," Spencer said. "The theater strikes at the heart."
Young Megan Anderson, a high school student who works at the theater, illustrated what Spencer said.Before the news conference, Anderson and her sister, Candice, were sweeping the walk in front of the theater and wiping down its glass doors. Asked why, if the theater was closed, they were worrying about it, Megan said, "It's important to us. Sometimes we come here on our own because we love the building. It's got a lot of history behind it, and I just love it."