Fourth Place Writing – Breaking News


Conneaut Lake Park fire to hurt community financially

By Jessica Tully

CONNEAUT LAKE, Pa. — A wooden sign contained a message that read “Welcome to the Dockside” but from the looks of the destruction a few feet behind it, no one will be welcome in the banquet hall for a long time, if ever.

The banquet hall and adjacent bar at Conneaut Lake Park were destroyed in a fire early Thursday morning.

No injuries have been reported in the blaze, which started in the Dockside banquet hall around 2 a.m. and spread to the Beach Club next door.

The fire was under control by 5:21 a.m., although firefighters continued to put out hot spots under the debris more than 10 hours after the fire was reported.

Trooper Kenneth Hamilton, a Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal, said it is too early to determine the cause of the fire, but an investigation will begin in the next few days. He guessed there would be smoke around the lake for at least 24 hours.

The banquet hall and bar border Conneaut Lake Park Amusement Park, a 121-year-old destination formerly known as Exposition Park. The park is in Crawford County, about 90 miles north of Pittsburgh.

The fire was extinguished before it reached the financially struggling amusement park, but Leonard Adams, who has leased the park for the past two years, said he stored a train for the Blue Streak, one of the oldest wooden coasters in America, in the basement of the Dockside.

Although the train hadn’t been used recently, he said now that it’s gone, it had been nice knowing there was a second set of wheels.

Mr. Adams, 32, added the amusement park relied on business from the banquet hall and bar.

“People would come to the park after attending an event at the Dockside,” he said. “This definitely won’t affect us in a good way. I bet it’ll be a devastating loss to the park.”

It seemed like the whole town had meandered over to watch fire crews douse the remaining hot spots Thursday afternoon. Community members held each other and offered their condolences to those who worked at the banquet hall or bar.

Looking at the blackened frame of what had been, it was hard to imagine the Dockside and Beach Club had been one of the town’s most popular spots.

The morale of the community was already low due to the fires that seem to have plagued the area.

The park’s Kiddieland was damaged in a fire two years ago. A fire also destroyed the Dreamland Ballroom, located about 200 yards from the banquet hall and bar that burned Thursday. That fire was ruled arson and many of the community members said they believe that to be the case again.

Adding to the town’s problems are a string of legal issues haunting its past. Former Conneaut Lake Park owner Gary Harris was convicted of tax evasion and fraud in 2004.

His partner was found guilty of conspiracy against the United States in addition to income tax evasion.

Kay Skripac, 60, has owned a home across the lake with husband Fritz for the past 11 years. She worries the already struggling community won’t be able to rebound from “another blow.”

“I had high hopes after the ballroom burned down that we would all come together and rebuild,” Ms. Skripac said. “That never happened, so why should I think it will happen this time? No one here has money to give.”

Businesses in Conneaut Lake have had financial problems for years, but Ms. Skripac said that the Dockside and Beach Club were “the biggest money makers in town.”

Her husband agreed and said it’s where everyone went after spending the day enjoying the sun out on the lake.

“This really was holding the place together,” Mr. Skripac, 68, said while pointing to the still smoking Beach Club and Dockside. “Without it, I can’t see what we will do.”

But from the number of phone calls she received from friends and family, Joyce Popovich thinks this won’t be the end of the banquet hall and bar.

Joyce and Steve Popovich spent their life savings to lease Hotel Conneaut, which was not damaged, and the Dockside and Beach Club. Their lease on Dockside and the Beach Club is for the next 20 years.

Ms. Popovich said she can see Dockside from her home down the street. Her mother knocked on her door about 2 a.m. and told her she saw smoke.

“I opened my door, and all I could see was smoke,” Ms. Popovich said. “I couldn’t even leave my house.”

At first, she couldn’t believe it and then all she felt was grief as she called her husband out of bed.

Dick Holabaugh, Conneaut Lake council president, said several weddings scheduled at one of the damaged facilities were profit-generating and brought in foot traffic.

“These were some of the structures involved with the park that are open on a day-to-day-basis,” he said. “There will be obviously a social impact. There’s going to be an economic impact.”

Ms. Popovich said a wedding planned for this weekend would move across the street to the Hotel Conneaut.

A total of 47 weddings have been scheduled there this year and some will have to also move to the hotel, she said.

Ms. Popovich said she and her husband were waiting to hear from their insurance company. She hopes they will be able to rebuild.

“You can either let something like this get you down, or you can move forward and keep on going, which we’re going to do,” she said.