ELKHART — A popular nightclub has been shut down for fire code violations that one city official said were potentially a recipe for disaster.
Complaints about overflow parking and the use of portable toilets at The Arena, 2401 Middlebury St., led to an inspection Friday, Jan. 17, that revealed fire, zoning and building code violations, according to two officials with the city of Elkhart.
The Arena occupies the space formerly known as the Rainbo Lanes bowling alley.
Officials found a lack of proper exits, no sprinkler system and were told that close to 800 customers had been inside the building on Jan. 11.
The circumstances reminded Denny Correll, Elkhart building commissioner, of the Rhode Island night club fire that killed nearly 100 people and injured hundreds in 2003.
“That's the first thing I thought of,” Correll said.
Officials found four or five exits, but three were behind the bowling lanes, which had been modified into a dance floor, Correll said.
None of the exits were handicap accessible, said Elkhart Fire Marshal Kent Stouder.
The business was using 12 to 16 portable toilets inside a garage area, which is another violation, Correll said.
Six to eight fire extinguishers were found, but they were not properly certified, he said.
The conversion to a nightclub represents a change in the use of the building, which requires approval by the city board of zoning appeals, Correll said.
Representatives of the city planning department and the Elkhart County Health Department could not be reached for comment because government offices were closed Monday.
Correll said they found two building code violations. One involved electrical cords being improperly used and another in which alcohol was being improperly stored.
Stouder said the building also lacked emergency lighting, signs pointing to exits and signs stating maximum capacity.
He was unsure what the maximum capacity would be for the building while operating as a nightclub.
The nightclub was not open last weekend and will likely be closed for several weeks at the minimum, Stouder said.
Names of the three people who have been operating the business were not available Monday.
The nightclub has a sizeable parking lot, but was attracting such large crowds that customers were parking in nearby parking lots and along some streets. An employee of a nearby business, who asked not to be identified, said customers had been parking in an adjacent lot and that trash and broken bottles had been left behind, officials said.
Stouder said management had not done “their homework,” but that city officials intend to work with them to bring the building up to code.
Stouder agreed the conditions represented a danger.
“There was potential for some problems,” Stouder said. “You put 800 to 1,000 people in a building that has inadequate existing ... but it could be the potential for a large catastrophe,”
The Arena's Facebook page on Monday had nearly 1,800 followers and included a statement posted Friday, Jan. 17, apologizing for canceling events over the weekend.
The statement was written in Spanish and suggested some requirements were needed to “permit us to continue.”
The Facebook page mentioned activities at the Middlebury Street as early as June 28.
The Arena was open on weekends from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Rainbo Lanes had been a well-established business for about four decades, but had been closed in recent years. Attempts to sell or auction off the property lingered in recent years until March, of 2013, when Bill Burke and John Goodman acquired it.
Burke, who is affiliated with a bowling lanes operation in Angola, Ind., said Monday the business had not been sold, but declined further comment.
Burke and Goodman said they had planned to upgrade the bowling lanes and equipment and promote the facility's bar and other offerings. They also planned to rename it to Rainbo Lanes Fun Center. Most noticeably, much of the building's exterior had been repainted from pink to blue since they took ownership.
According to a Truth story written last year, Rainbo Lanes opened under Ronald Grose's tutelage in 1963. It thrived, and at one point, was operating 24 hours a day.
Grose's children sold the operation in the mid-2000s, according to Tom Grose. The new owner missed payments, and ownership after a few years reverted back to the Groses.