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Arson 'epidemic' suspected as fire levels only strip club

It was once a respected Eagles hall, then a coffee shop, a blues bar and, finally, the city's only strip club.

But Monday morning, this historic 100-year-old building was stripped down to the ground after a suspicious fire destroyed the former Portage House.

The building has become part of the "epidemic" of suspected arson fires that has plagued run-down vacant buildings in cities such as Niagara Falls and Buffalo, said Niagara Falls Fire Chief William D. MacKay.

Every city firefighter was called out just after 4 a.m. to fight the fire at 242 Portage Road, and crews spent nearly 4 1/2 hours bringing it under control. Because of unsafe conditions, the building was demolished just before 9 a.m.

MacKay said the two-story building, nearly 4,000 square feet, was fully engulfed when firefighters arrived. He said the fire appears to have started in a lower floor and spread to seven vacant apartments on the second floor. No injuries were reported.

MacKay said the balloon-type construction of the building allowed the fire to quickly spread through open walls in the first and second floors to the loft between the roof and second-story ceiling.

Lawrence DeLong had owned the building since 1971 before selling it to Niagara Falls Redevelopment on Aug. 23, 2005, for $200,000. The building was currently being assessed at $50,000 and sat inside the city's planned redevelopment footprint.

DeLong had tried to make a go of the business for many years in this increasingly run-down area of the city near East Falls Street. He tried to build a sports park, a teen bar and other businesses before turning it into a topless club.

After closing in June 2005, the bar quickly was transferred to Niagara Falls Redevelopment ownership.

MacKay said that although the fire was "suspicious," there was no indication that this fire was related to the property owner or Niagara Falls Redevelopment.

MacKay said: "It's indicative of a community with a large number of vacant buildings. People take advantage and use [vacant buildings] as an opportunity to set fires. Fortunately, no one has been hurt in Niagara Falls."

He said fire officials are working with the Police Department's crime analyst to develop a profile of people who are starting fires in the city.

"We need to stop this epidemic," MacKay said.


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