In the early morning hours of Sept. 9, 2012, Bellefonte Borough Manager Ralph Stewart was jolted awake by a phone call from Police Chief Shawn Weaver.
He immediately thought, “Not again.”
The Hotel Do De and Garman Theatre were ablaze in a major fire that gutted the Do De and badly damaged the Garman. Bellefonte was about to lose two more of its historic buildings.
“Like any major fire, it was just a feeling of shock that what we were seeing was actually reality,” Stewart said.
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It marked the fourth major fire in the past 10 years.
The buildings joined the Bellefonte Academy, the Bush House and the Cadillac Building that went up in smoke.
One year later, Stewart hopes the town is moving in the right direction to reduce this problem.
People couldn’t believe it.
“I’m shell-shocked,” one onlooker told the Centre Daily Times as the fire was roaring. “I can’t believe it’s gone.”
The blaze began at about 12:30 a.m and wasn’t completely controlled until about 6 a.m. Emergency crews headed back to the scene multiple times that day to control “hotspots” and keep on eye on the building.
Stewart said he went in the morning and spent most of the day at the site, blocking off roads, helping move debris and working with crew members.
In the next few weeks, the borough continued to mobilize with help from outside agencies to deal with the aftermath, finding temporary housing for the displaced residents and cleaning up the mess.
Teams of people evaluated every inch of the way the incident was handled, looking at response time, firefighting logistics, water pressure and water supply levels among many other aspects.
Stewart said they continued to examine ways to improve and handle safety in the future.
He said it’s important to find ways to curb the problem so this doesn’t keep happening as often.
“It’s very destructive to our community,” he said.
Working on prevention
A little more than a week after the fire, the Borough Council voted to create a fire prevention task force, dedicated to stopping fires before they start.
The group began looking at prevention measures like education, code enforcement, firewalls and electronic monitoring systems that alert 911.
Ultimately, Stewart would like to see the borough hire a new person to a position specifically dedicated to fire prevention
“We’re looking at the long-term,” he said, “trying to bring somebody in to enhance out efforts.”
The task force is expected to release its full master plan in the next year, Stewart said, and it will include incentives to help buildings install sprinkler systems and other prevention measures. Many of the issues come down to money, so making it affordable had to be high on the priority list, Stewart said.
Ramping up the efforts for code inspections also proved invaluable, he said.
As a result of the inspections, many buildings were made safer and the examination likely prevented future fires.
The fate of the buildings
The Bellefonte Academy and Bush House have both been knocked down but the Cadillac Building, the Garman and the Do De may have brighter futures.
State College Developer Ara Kervandjian entered during the aftermath, closing on the Cadillac and reaching sales agreements with the owners of both the Do De and the Garman. He planned to knock down all three building and build up two new ones, creating 32 workforce housing apartment units.
He said in February that it would make a positive impact on the town and help it move forward.
"Rebuilding those buildings, I think, is the beginning of a process that downtown Bellefonte sorely needs in order to take advantage of some of the opportunities that they have, " he said.
But it wasn’t that easy.
The Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority took control of the Garman in March under the Abandoned and Blighted Properties Conservatorship Act, superseding the sales agreement on that building.
It still looked as if Kervandjian would end up with the buildings until a challenger approached.
The members of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association wouldn’t let the Garman be knocked down without a fight They created a counter-proposal to restore the building and turn it into a regional arts center.
After multiple votes and hearings the jury is still out.
The IDA has previously supported Kervandjian, but has asked for more time before making a final decision.
If the BHCA is awarded the opportunity to purchase the Garman, the fate of the Do De and Cadillac Building becomes murky.
Tying up loose ends
The fire was ruled arson, but no arrests have been made and the trail may be cold. Stewart said the fact that the arsonist is still out there is a little unsettling.
But as borough manager, that is out of his control.
There is always an element of human error, he said and some fires can’t be prevented, but he will do everything in his power to make sure this problem doesn’t rear it’s ugly head as often in the future.
He is just focused on doing everything he can to help the town heal.
“We’ve got to deal with the aftermath and go from there,” he said.