Downtown yet to rebound from blaze

Downtown: Eyesores and inaction

Dunkirk fire crews responded to the Masonic Temple building around 5 p.m. Feb. 24, 2010. Hours later, it was an inferno.

Ask a longtime resident about the worst pain inflicted on Dunkirk economically over the last 50 years and they will likely tell you it was urban renewal, which took place in the late 1960s. Looking over the photos taken at that time, there were scenes where the city looked as though it was in a war zone.

But the day downtown Dunkirk’s energy and spirit died happened about eight years ago this weekend when the Masonic Temple building on Central Avenue burned. The four-story historic structure’s demise began around 5 p.m. with an electrical fire in the back of the building. Within a matter of hours, it became an inferno.

Thousands lined up at the avenue corners of Third and Fourth streets during the evening to watch city firefighters and those from across the county battle the blaze on a night when temperatures were in the single digits. Fortunately, there were no winds.

As usual, the firefighters were heroic. Not only did they have to fight the fire — and return regularly to extinguish hot spots in weeks to come, they also cleared out the building that included about 30 area youth participating in a gymnastics class on the fourth floor.

All those children got out safely. Many of those youngsters there then are now in high school. They remember, at a time when cell phones were not as prevalent, having to walk to P&G Foods to call their parents to pick them up due to the fire.

On the next morning of Feb. 25, the late Mayor Richard Frey pulled over his vehicle when he spotted me at Third Street and Central watching the smoke continue to rise from the debilitated structure. His only words were, “That building’s coming down.”

Over the next months, the Central Avenue block was a one-way street. Tenants, including Medicor, the county offices as well as the gymnastics site, soon relocated. Residents would drive by to get a last look at the once-proud structure or just stop down to see how bad it really was.

There was lots of sadness — and plenty of worry. After a summer 2010 demolition, what remains today is an open parcel, which is only better than a burned-out building.

But that vacant land has become a microcosm of Central Avenue. It’s nearly empty and has seen little growth.

Across the street, there is a different set of problems. Buildings once owned by the United Secular American Center for the Disabled Inc. that went into foreclosure were repurchased by the trust of the Robert K. Lesser family. As noted in this column two weeks ago, since the repurchasing by the family there has been little in terms of investment or new tenants for the structures.

You would think this is exactly where the code enforcement office needs to do its job and be held accountable. If properties, especially those in what are supposed to be the heart of downtown, are not up to standard, why is this being ignored? Those structures are located on the same block as City Hall.

It is not an issue of out of sight, out of mind. Maybe, instead, it is just a continued lack of effort and enforcement by the city.

What’s the penalty for owning an eyesore downtown? Right now, it’s nothing.

That makes it tough on the city administration’s development department, which has been a shining star recently in aggressively trying to promote the waterfront. With a $2.5 million grant received in October from New York state, the aim is to build up the harborfront area and Central Avenue through Fredonia.

But there remains a lot of holes to fill as well as question marks for the avenue’s future with the impending exit of Brooks Memorial Hospital to the town of Pomfret. That Masonic Temple building had character, history and brought traffic downtown.

Today, where it once stood, eight years ago continues to be just a vacant lot. That adds to the desolate and empty feeling of downtown.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to or call 366-3000, ext. 401.