Bellefonte Hotel Do De fire ruled arson

– The fire that severely damaged the Hotel Do De and Garman Theatre last month was arson, the borough’s police chief said Monday.

It was a “deliberate and intentional act” and started in the rear exterior of the building, Chief Shawn Weaver told the Borough Council.

The investigation into the fire the early morning of Sept. 9 remains open, and a state fire marshal continues to review evidence collected from the scene, Weaver said.

The update Monday was the first significant announcement from law enforcement authorities in the more than three weeks of the investigation. Since then, the borough told the owner the building must come down after an engineer determined it’s not structurally sound and the street in front of the building has remained closed.

Last week, a second downtown blaze destroyed another building, a warehouse behind the Mattress World on Spring Street. But police quickly had a suspect in that fire.

Bellefonte police charged 22-year-old Jeff Karg with arson, and he is scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Wednesday. Online court records do not show that he has an attorney.

Weaver would not connect Karg to the Hotel Do De fire, as he declined to comment on whether Karg is a suspect.

Authorities continue to investigate a smaller, second fire at the Hotel Do De that was reported a week before the massive one, Weaver said. The small-debris fire was reported behind the building and did not cause any damage.

“Both were very suspicious and have some similarities in nature,” Weaver said.

The fire that devastated the Hotel Do De building was the fourth blaze that damaged an historic building in the downtown since 2004. It also reignited discussions among officials here about ways to protect buildings and prevent future fires.

Last month, Borough Council approved forming a task force to study those issues. Borough Manager Ralph Stewart said officials are developing a list of possible members for the task force, and they will discuss the list at a council work session in two weeks.

In the meantime, borough officials are exploring options to take care of putting a roof on the Garman after its roof collapsed during the fire. Officials had said they wanted to install a roof to protect the historic theater building from the rain and snow.

Stewart said the Garman does not have fire insurance coverage, and he has received one estimate that puts a new roof at a cost of about $100,000.

Council did not discuss the roof matter and has not voted on it.

One resident, Don Smith, told the council he was opposed to taxpayer money paying for a roof. He did not think the borough would get its money back even by putting a lien on the property to recoup it at a sheriff’s sale.

Borough Council President Frank “Buddy” Halderman told Smith that nothing has been decided yet.

“What we will try to do is is keep council informed and keep the citizens informed as to what we’re doing,” Stewart said after the meeting. “Whatever we do has to make financial sense.”