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NEW CHICAGO — Flames shot through the roof of a riverfront bar early Friday, destroying the long-vacant structure and challenging firefighters for more than seven hours as they worked to extinguish the blaze.

The town boarded up Water Front Lounge, 2970 DeKalb St., earlier this year because of persistent problems with people entering the dilapidated structure, Police Chief James Richardson said.

The Lake County Redevelopment Commission owns the property and had been expecting to receive a second round of bids next week for demolition, said Timothy Brown, executive director of the Lake County Community Economic Development Department.

New Chicago firefighters were dispatched to the fire at Water Front Lounge at 1:36 a.m. Friday and found the building engulfed, Fire Chief Joe Eakins said.

The bar closed several years ago, and there was no gas or electric service to the building, he said. There were several apartments on the second floor, officials said.

Eakins said the fire was so large, he immediately ordered firefighters to battle the blaze from outside the building to prevent any injuries. The strategy was to "surround and drown" the fire, he said.

The building sits close to Deep River. No parts of the building were washed into the river, Eakins said.

The building was a total loss and likely will need to be demolished, Eakins said. The Hobart and Lake Station fire departments assisted.

The cause and origin remained under investigation.

Trespassing was a problem

New Chicago police arrested six people trespassing on the property about six months ago, Richardson said. Officers escorted a couple people off the property after that, and there were problems with kids getting into the building.

Richardson said he asked the town to board up the property, because of concerns trespassers could get injured. There were large holes in the floors and ceilings, he said.

People also were going into the building to use alcohol and narcotics, he said.

Police had not responded to the building in the several months since it was boarded up, he said.

Police are investigating Friday's fire in conjunction with the Fire Department, he said.

Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call Lake County dispatch at 219-660-0001 and leave a message for Detective Jordan Billups or Richardson.

The establishment at the site was once know as The Chateau, Town Council President Sharon Szwedo said.

When Szwedo was a girl, bands played there and dances were held.

The building was constructed in 1920, according to online Lake County assessor's records. Little was left of the structure Friday, Szwedo said.

Asbestos concerns

The Lake County Redevelopment Commission sought a second round of bids for demolition earlier this year after contractors raised concerns about asbestos inside the building, Brown said.

The commission hired Northwest Indiana Environmental, of Crown Point, to investigate and prepare an asbestos report. The company determined asbestos was present in about 250 square feet of flooring tiles in the kitchen, and the report was attached when the commission advertised for the second round of bids, he said.

"That was the type of asbestos that didn't require unique removal," Brown said. 

A contractor would have needed to be careful not to break up the tile as it was removed, he said.

Brown said he's now asked Northwest Indiana Environmental to evaluate the site on an emergency basis to determine what is needed for a cleanup. Eight-foot fencing will be installed to secure the site, he said.

The fencing will help keep people away from the building, which had a basement, Szweto said.

New Chicago officials have to give the Redevelopment Commission the go-ahead to clean up the property. The timing will depend on their investigation.

The Lake County Redevelopment Commission wouldn't typically own a building like the Water Front Lounge, Brown said.

New Chicago is a small town and doesn't have its own redevelopment commission, so the county Redevelopment Commission agreed to the town's request to accept the property.

"Only redevelopment commissions can wipe out property taxes and past liens," he said.

The town's agreement with the county commission says the property eventually will be returned to New Chicago for use a park, he said.


Public safety reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.