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Owners plan to rebuild resort area

| Sunday, Aug. 19, 2001

Looking at the Conley Resort Inn from its picturesque main entrance along Route 8 in Penn Township, a visitor might not notice the damage triggered by an electrical fire late last month.

An assortment of neat, white buildings sit undisturbed, surrounded by a meticulously manicured golf course, highlighted by ponds and trees.

But upon approaching the rear of the complex, where two brick silos stand defiantly amid piles of burned debris, the extent of damage becomes obvious.

'That was the pro shop and office right here,' said owner Wayne Conley, looking over the ruins. 'And over here was the restaurant and bar. The kitchen was in the middle, and there was a banquet room on the other side.'

While it would be easy for some business people to decide against replacing the 7,000-square-foot area that was destroyed or to consider calling quits to the business altogether, Conley and his wife, Barbara, plan to rebuild.

It just makes sense, Conley said as workers loaded and hauled away burned debris from the blaze, which left damage estimated at $1.5 million.

'The whole complex works. ... If I didn't have the restaurant and bar, I wouldn't have the golf course. And more importantly I wouldn't have people staying in that hotel.'

On the other hand, Conley worries the business will be hurt financially this year because of the accident and because people might be less inclined to come to the resort because they think it is not fully operational.

'Everything is working,' he said. 'We're still pulling off all of our golf outings. ... We even put a temporary bar in one of our banquet rooms.'

He said he also hopes to have a small, makeshift kitchen up and running so hot meals can be served sometime soon. Several other banquet rooms continue to operate, as well as the resort's hotel and indoor water park.

Linda Harvey, president of the Butler County Chamber of Commerce & Tourism, commended the Conleys for deciding to rebuild after the fire.

'Obviously, Conley's was fortunate in that they had some remaining buildings ... and a starting point from which to rebuild,' Harvey said.

'I think that it's unfortunate for Conley's that it had to happen right now, in a season when they're normally very busy,' she said. 'But I think they've done an extraordinary job at getting the word out that they are still open.'

Large, yellow banners hang on a fence at the entrance to Conley's Resort Inn announcing that the golf course still is open for business.

Meanwhile, Butler County continues to be a good place to do business or rebuild a business, Harvey said. More people are moving into the county, while others are discovering it as a tourism site, she said.

'People recognize the Conley name, and obviously they have a beautiful golf course, and it's a great tourism destination for people,' she said.

'They've been a big part of the local economy.'

Conley is grateful his business is located in Butler County. He has noticed the county growing in population.

'Actually, the Pittsburgh area is pushing out on us,' he said.

Butler County's population increased 15 percent, from 152,013 in 1990 to 174,083 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census. That was the largest percentage increase of nine southwestern Pennsylvania counties.

At the same time, 'our business brings in a lot of people to Butler County who would never have come to Butler County,' Conley said.

As a result, 'every year, business has gotten a little better ... until this year.'

Any fire in a business is troubling, but Conley said this fire was especially troubling and devastating for him.

'We were just about there,' he said. 'We didn't need any more rooms. We didn't need any more golf course ... and everything was in good shape. I thought, let's just operate now.'

That all changed at about 10 a.m. July 28.

'The cook in the kitchen came running out and said the electrical box was sparking,' he recalled. 'I shut off as many breakers as I could, and it was still sparking. So I ran downstairs and threw the main breaker.'

Firefighters arrived quickly after a call to 911, but the fire was difficult to locate and contain, Conley said. The fire started in what had been an old barn, he and fire officials said.

The barn, which was built in the 1920s, was extensively remodeled in the 1960s, years before Conley, his wife, and his parents started the resort. Two silos that had been attached to the barn remained standing after the fire was put out but will be town down, he said.

'This is the worst fire that our company has ever had. This is the first time we've ever put in a fire loss claim for insurance,' the businessman said.

Construction will begin as soon as possible on a new building to house the kitchen, banquet room, shops and offices that were destroyed in the fire, he said.

The new structure will not be any bigger or fancier than what it is replacing, he said. 'What we had worked. What we had was what we needed,' he said.

'It was a barn that burned down, and we're going to try to make it look like that.'

Lawrence Sanata can be reached at lsanata@tribweb.com or (724) 779-7109.

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