5 years after tragedy

HANCOCK – It’s been five years since a fire at 116 Quincy Street in Hancock resulted in four deaths, but after avoiding the wrecking ball, the building’s seven apartments and ground floor business space are filled.

A fire in the building on July 25, 2009, was called arson after an investigation by the Michigan state fire marshal. Building resident Ronald Kemppainen was charged with the arson, but after two trials in May and December 2010 ended in mistrials, the charges against him were dismissed in January 2011.

For about three years, after debris from the fire was removed and the building was stabilized, it sat unused and its future was uncertain until Hancock-based real estate developer Mike Lahti bought it in November 2011.

The renovation of the interior of the building was funded by a combination of Lahti’s money and a $245,000 loan from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. If all MSHDA regulations are followed, in five years the loan will become a grant. Four of the apartments in the building have MSHDA-regulated rents, but they can become market-rate apartments after five years or after the original tenants move out. The other three apartments are market-rate rentals.

Lahti said when the building didn’t sell after a second tax sale and the county was close to tearing it down, he decided to buy it.

“That got me interested in bringing it around,” he said.

At the time, the building was just a shell with four exterior walls and a seriously damaged roof, Lahti said.

This is actually the second time he has owned the building, Lahti said.

“I owned it from 1980 to 1997,” he said. “At that time (1980), it was a rooming house.”

He turned the rooming house into nine apartments and business space on the ground floor, Lahti said. The building had two other owners after he sold it and before he bought it again.

“It’s a solid structure,” he said.

Lahti said all seven apartments are filled, and the ground floor is occupied by Blue Terra Energy which installs heating and cooling systems, solar panels and does energy audits.

Blue Terra Energy owner Dave Camps said Lahti has been open to the needs of the company regarding the building.

“Mike’s been very good to us,” he said.

Lahti said he’s glad he bought the building.

“It turned out really well,” he said.

Glenn Anderson, Hancock city manager, said he and the members of the city council are glad the building could be saved and put back into use, and that funding could be found for renovation.

“Between Houghton County, the Land Bank and the city, we were able to find money for it,” he said.

Anderson said it was disappointing the building sat empty for so long and that it came so close to being torn down.

“It left a very deep scar in downtown,” he said.

Anderson said Lahti installed fire suppression equipment in the building, and the apartments turned out well.

“They are beautiful apartments,” he said.

Anderson said Lahti has also purchased the building at 199 Quincy Street, which is empty now.

“We are anticipating that being started by the end of the year,” he said.

Anderson said although there are some empty buildings downtown, the occupancy rate per square foot of available space is actually good.

“We always have 5 to 10 percent vacancy,” he said.