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home : news : news Thursday, April 28, 2016

10/26/2013 Email this articlePrint this article 
Despite Haunted House closing, Charlotte looks to future

Jennifer Reed Murrell

With the 2013 ghouling season in full swing, the calendar marks an unfortunate anniversary of the sudden closing of local Halloween favorite, the Charlotte Haunted House.

While residents attempted to celebrate Halloween with a 5k race, trivia night and today's party for Charlotte-area children, the fact remains a once-cherished focal point is history.

Oct. 18, last year, then city maintenance man Bill Heiar set in motion actions resulting in the sudden closure of the Charlotte Haunted House, a mainstay on the spook circuit for more than a decade.

Mayor Peggy Sellnau wishes she could forget that day. "The closing of the haunted house has deeply affected this town and will have lasting effects on many people.

"It's a shame a few people felt they had to take matters in their own hands rather than working through the city council."

The city owns the Charlotte Area Activity Center (CAAC), which was the old Charlotte school and where the haunted house occurred.

While Heiar was unable to be reached for comment, according to records of the public meetings held following the closing of the haunted house, Heiar contacted the city's insurance company about safety issues including debris in the walkways, unlighted exits and flammable materials.

Charlotte fire chief Dave Sellnau explained once insurance is contacted, "they have to go through it with a fine-tooth comb."

The fire chief admitted there were hazards, but added, "we weren't open yet. All those things would've been corrected."

Dave Sellnau noted in all the years it operated, only one injury was reported, a twisted ankle. However when insurance investigated, the claim was unfounded. Safety was a main concern for the 40-60 people working the haunted house, which kept firemen and EMTs on hand for the duration and at least one fire truck onsite.

"If they had safety concerns about the haunted house, they should have brought it up formally during a council meeting," mayor Sellnau added. "Any concerns should have been addressed prior to the haunted house opening and we could have avoided this whole thing."

New life for old building

Nonetheless the haunted house was shuttered and the school portion of the CAAC gutted, not only prompting feelings of personal loss, but significant financial woes.

It was estimated the haunted house generated upwards of $20,000 during its two weekends of operations. That amount provided sufficient funds to cover the CAAC's operating expenses like heat, electricity and water. Without those funds, the city risked seeing the structure fall into disrepair.

"The CAAC is the town's history and our community center," noted mayor Sellnau. "It would be a shame to let this old building just rot away."

Fortunately, local businessman Mike Jensen formed a group of residents called Citizens for Charlotte (CFC), which, following a successful proposal to the Charlotte City Council, is in the midst of a year-long lease of the CAAC.

What Jensen and the CFC did was open a fitness center in the gymnasium of the CAAC which offers a variety of fitness classes as well as machines and weights. The CFC also rents the gymnasium for special events such as last weekend's Halloween-themed trivia night, which raised over $1,000 for the Charlotte playground rejuvenation project.

Finding new uses for old space

Dave Sellnau admits Halloween feels a bit empty this year. "This was our main hobby for years and years."

While he and his sons helped scare runners during the second annual Chainsaw Chase 5k Oct. 12 and not only decorated the gym, but helped to spook trivia players last Saturday night, "our hearts just aren't in it."

All four of his and Peggy's sons, ages 11-16, have grown up working in the haunted house. He recalled one particular evening finding his youngest curled up in a corner "sound asleep with his mask and costume on."

Today they'll don costumes and masks once more as the Charlotte Fire Department along with the CFC holds the annual kids' games and costume contest in the CAAC gymnasium.

What was previously the haunted house matinee, in which over 100 children enjoyed an afternoon walk-through with the lights on followed by a costume contest and games, this year is just the games and contest beginning at 1:30 p.m.

"I am hopeful something good can come out of this sad situation," noted mayor Sellnau. 

"The CAAC is now being used nearly every day, (and) I hope this can continue and we find more uses for the building."

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