Bellefonte’s leaders are back on the proverbial hot seat following last Sunday’s fire that destroyed the Hotel Do De.
Investigators are still working to piece together how the fire started and the dollar value of damage caused to the former Garman Hotel and the neighboring buildings that house the Garman Theatre to the north and the county’s Courthouse Annex to the south.
Whatever figure those damages reach, the cost could have been much higher. All 27 residents of the Hotel Do De escaped safely.
Some are finding shelter at a nearby church and taking showers at the YMCA. All have been helped by the Salvation Army, Red Cross or other organizations and through individual donations.
Those who escaped the blaze range in age from 4 to 83, and include a family of six.
The Do De fire has rekindled talk of mandatory sprinklers in Bellefonte’s historic buildings.
Such dialogue has bubbled up with every downtown blaze, and there have been several in the past decade.
Each previous discussion brought lots of words, but action, including fire safety inspections, came slower. And borough officials have said the cost of installing sprinklers in historic buildings would be too much for the property owners to bear.
Had this been a fatal fire, we suspect talks now would be considerably more urgent. Let’s not wait for tragedy to find answers.
The historic borough is home to many structures whose age and architecture have become both a blessing and a curse.
One of Bellefonte’s charms is its Victorian heritage, the ornate building facades that reflect an earlier time and help lure residents, businesses and tourists to town.
But many of those same buildings lack modern protections such as sprinklers, and the aging structures are in some cases tall tinderboxes waiting for the spark. What should Bellefonte do?
Borough Council will take up the discussion at a 6 p.m. work session Monday.
Councilman Dave Provan said he and his fellow council members are “all in shock.”
Still, he said, they were committed to finding a way to protect residents and the town’s historic structures.
The future of downtown buildings was likewise on the minds of the Centre County commissioners and others this week.
We agree with Bellefonte Borough Council Vice President Vana Dainty, who said: “We just know something has to happen because we can’t keep losing our historical buildings. This time we really have to step up.” Easier said than done, some experts say.
The costs associated with retrofitting an older structure with modern fire protection devices can be quite high.
Some communities offer grants to businesses that perform safety upgrades, while others provide tax breaks.
Local leaders should engage state and federal elected officials in the process. All possible funding sources should be explored.
After the 2006 Bush House fire, Bellefonte formed a task force to study the issue. Soon, building owners were required to have regular safety inspections at their properties — a good first step. Some grant money was found to help property owners with the installation of sprinklers, but the borough could not use public money for work on private buildings.
Would sprinklers save these buildings in every instance? No, firefighters said, citing the Valentine House blaze in 2008 which started in the attic— above the reach of such safeguards.
But in many cases, sprinklers can help control a fire long enough for people to escape, while Bellefonte Fire Department Chief Tim Schreffler said sprinklers also serve to “keep the fire in check until firefighters arrive, minimizing fire damage.”
Borough Councilman Walt Schneider acknowledged that the problem has no easy solution. Property owners could be asked to make costly enhancements even as the economy remains sluggish.
Still, he said, he and other leaders must find the resolve to act.
Schneider said: “Let’s roll up our sleeves, sit down and ask, ‘How do we solve this?’ ”
Although many people were displaced by the Do De fire, all escaped safely.
But Bellefonte can’t wait until an unspeakable tragedy occurs to find the courage and means to move.
It’s time to develop a plan for protecting the town’s remaining historic buildings, and especially those who live, work and shop in them.