Conneaut Lake Park entertainment complex leveled in early Thursday blaze
By Bill Vidonic
Published: Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013, 6:42 a.m.
CONNEAUT LAKE — The flames that destroyed a decades-old wooden entertainment complex early Thursday at Conneaut Lake Park reduced romantic memories to ashes, jeopardized more than 50 jobs and left couples looking for alternate wedding sites.
State fire marshals are investigating the fire that leveled the Beach Club and Down Under eateries and adjoining Dockside banquet facility. It damaged 10 boats docked nearby.
“I don't know what we're going to do right now,” said Dean Stankovich, a full-time employee of Conneaut Lake-based Park Restoration LLC, which has leased and operated the entertainment complex and Hotel Conneaut since 2008. “It's all up in the air right now. This just breaks my heart.”
Park Restoration owners Steven and Joyce Popovich and Greg Sutterlin said they hope to move many of the 50 part-time jobs to the hotel.
The more immediate concern, Joyce Popovich said, are weddings scheduled in the banquet hall.
The group booked 47 weddings, class reunions and other events for 2013. The hotel can accommodate all but a few weddings, she said, but not necessarily other events.
“We grew up here. We fell in love with this place,” Steve Popovich said. “This took our livelihood away when this happened.”
Tanya Strait and Sam Coon, both of Meadville, will greet 220 guests at their wedding reception on Saturday at the hotel, instead of Dockside. Strait said panicked friends began texting her at 5:30 a.m. while she was at work as a nurse at Wesbury Retirement Village. She lost some decorations in the hall.
“I'm just grateful no one got hurt,” Strait said. “It's just such a loss.”
The Popoviches and Sutterlin said they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating the building that opened in the early 1930s. Insurance may cover the losses, Sutterlin said.
The fire reported by a boater about 2:20 a.m. drew more than 75 firefighters from nine companies. One firefighter had a seizure while battling the blaze, and another had an allergic reaction to a bee sting, Summit fire Chief Gig King said.
Many who watched the complex burn feared it was an arsonist's work, given recent history at the park.
In February 2008, the historic Dreamland Ballroom burned down. The two-story ballroom over the years had played host to singers Perry Como, Doris Day, Shirley Jones, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. A Hartstown man pleaded guilty to arson.
The park has weathered financial problems and bankruptcy, and its historic wooden Blue Streak roller coaster was down for four years before reopening on Labor Day weekend 2010. A year later, officials said someone stole copper wire from the coaster.
Summit fire Marshal Pete Albaugh said nine fires of undetermined causes happened last year in and around the park.
This one dealt Albaugh a personal blow. He met his wife, Pam, at the Beach Club 42 years ago when he tended bar and she waited tables. The couple celebrated their anniversary on Thursday.
“There's a lot of people that want to see this park back to what it was, but I don't think they'll achieve that,” Albaugh said.
As smoke billowed from the wreckage, Donna Tempalski of Moon recalled standing on the boardwalk on summer nights, watching fireworks explode over the lake, and attending Calgon picnics. She has a summer home nearby.
“I loved dancing here,” Tempalski said. “I was teary-eyed when I heard what happened.”
Butler Township resident Terri Venmar, 52, wept as she remembered Armco Steel picnics at the park.
“There have been so many fires here,” Venmar said.
Jack Moyers, chairman of the park trustees, said the blaze destroyed spare parts and equipment for the roller coaster, antique games and memorabilia.
Moyers said rides, concessions and Camperland at the park will operate as usual, open Thursdays through Mondays. The Park After Dark event will take place at 7 p.m. Saturday.
A film crew is documenting renovations for a Travel Channel reality show, and officials will announce changes on Saturday.
Donna Hayes, 86, is known as the “unofficial mayor of Conneaut Lake Park” to nearby residents because she's always there.
“If we don't have this park, we don't have anything,” Hayes said.
Bill Vidonic is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5621 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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