Urbana official: ‘I think that we’re seeing a progression in severity in the fires’

A reward of up to $5,000 is being offered in in exchange for information about the person or people responsible for starting multiple fires in downtown Urbana.

The reward program is offered through the Ohio Blue Ribbon Arson Committee and supported by the insurance underwriters industry.

Urbana Fire Division Captain Jason Croker said this will be the second time in about five years that the department has worked in coordination with the committee, but he’s optimistic that it’ll yield results.

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“If someone from the community offers a tip that leads to the identification, arrest and conviction of the person that’s responsible for those fires” he said. “Then the Urbana Fire Division or Urbana Police Division will nominate that person to the committee and they can receive an award of up to $5,000.”

The fire department has responded to three separate fires on Monument Square since September — all of them have targeted the back of the Douglas building, which has been vacant for close to 20 years.

Croker said it’s possible that the same person or group of people are responsible for all three fires.

“I think that we’re seeing a progression in the severity of the fires,” Croker said.

The most recent fire was set on Oct. 11. A back door was set on fire, and smoke traveled under the floor boards into Big Willie’s Smokehouse next door.

Big Willie’s owner, Bill Curtis told the News-Sun on Tuesday that his business suffered about $30,000 worth of smoke damage, but he has been cleared to reopen and take orders.

The fires have come at a time that community partners are working on a plan to redevelop the Douglas Inn into affordable senior housing, called Legacy Place.

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City and county officials previously said the developer of the project was facing one final financial hurdle in order to push the project forward.

The developer, Flaherty and Collins submitted a grant application for at least $500,000 to the Affordable Housing Program of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati, and the awards of this grant will be announced next month.

Legacy Place would convert the Douglas Hotel, as well as the former North and South Elementary Schools in Urbana, into senior apartments. Legacy Place would create 51 housing units available to residents 55 and older.

Of those units, 20 would be in the Douglas Hotel with retail on the first floor and the rest of the units would be housed in the elementary schools.

Captain Croker said the owner of the Douglas has been very responsive to the fires like boarding up damaged doors and installing new technology to deter further fires — but someone will need to speak up in order to hold the arsonist responsible.

An arson case is open with the Urbana Police Division. Anyone who may have information into the string of fires is asked to call 937-652-HELP or 937-652-4357.

3 — fires targeting the Douglas building

16 — years the Douglas has been vacant

$5000 — potential reward offered for information about suspect

Before the string of fires, officials had a plan to transform the former hotel into affordable senior housing. The funding for the prjoect is expected to be secured by the end of the year.

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