Bickford looks to relocate scary venue after FDFD finds multiple code violations in old building
A haunted house which was set to debut in downtown Fort Dodge on Thursday will not be available to the public after numerous city code violations were brought to the owner’s attention, according to Fort Dodge Fire Chief Steve Hergenreter.
Brooke Bickford is the owner of the building, located at 1100 Central Ave. Bickford and about three other volunteers decorated the inside of the more than 100-year-old building with the purpose of bringing some scares to the downtown.
She named it Fort Dodge Fear Factory.
“When I bought the building in 2011 I always thought it would be a great haunted house,” Bickford said. “I kind of go with my gut in trying to do something and I didn’t think it would be that big of an issue, until the city contacted me.”
According to Hergenreter, the city reached out to Bickford on Oct. 12 after it was discovered there were plans to host a haunted house at that location.
“We went over some of the requirements to hold a haunted house in that structure,” Hergenreter said. “It’s up to her to meet the requirements or find an alternate location.”
Some of the violations, according to Hergenreter, include: only one way in and out of the building, no smoke alarms, no sprinkler system, and no illuminated exit signs.
“There were several life safety regulations the building didn’t meet,” Hergenreter said.
The building was built in 1890.
“It was designed to be an apartment building and has been vacant for several years,” Hergenreter said. “It’s just in poor condition, which would have made it neat to have a haunted house, but also made it extremely high risk to hold that there.”
The requirements are more strict for a public assembly building, which is what this one would need to be, he said.
“If you change occupancy of any type, like this one changed from a multifamily residential to a special occupancy assembly for a haunted house, there are regulations to meet,” he said. “Whoever owns the building or is organizing and changing it, it’s their responsibility to reach out to local officials and find out what needs to be done to be compliant with local and state laws.”
Hergenreter said he met with Bickford Tuesday.
“We mutually agreed that the building is not ideal to hold that high risk event in there with its age and some of the life safety hazards, was not an ideal location to hold that,” he said.
Bickford said she wished the city would have told her sooner.
“I don’t think it was a fair situation, but I feel Steve Hergenreter and Matt Bemrich have been super helpful in trying to get some understanding with this,” she said.
Bemrich is the mayor of Fort Dodge.
Bickford said she plans to move some of the features of the haunted house to a new location.
“I haven’t moved it yet,” she said. “But my plan is to move it.”
“I understand that the fire chief had some concerns,” she said. “Haunted houses are dangerous, so after talking with him I completely get it. For the benefit of everybody I will move it to a different location. Hopefully it will go off even better than before.”
Bickford intends to host the haunted house somewhere in the Fort Dodge area by this weekend.
“Everyone that has participated is excited to move it,” she said. “We may have to push the dates back, but I am still hoping for Friday or Saturday.”
The Eagles Ballroom and John F. Kennedy Memorial Park are two areas where the haunted house may be relocated, according to Bickford.
Tim Goodale, of Fort Dodge, is one volunteer who helped enhance the spooky features inside Fort Dodge Fear Factory.
“I spent probably 30 to 40 hours setting up,” he said.
Goodale was disappointed to find out the haunted house would not be a go.
“It’s disheartening,” he said. “We really went above and beyond on this.”
The inside of the building featured glow-in-the-dark bats, clowns, a morgue, and even a spooky tribute to presidential candidates.
Goodale said some of the requirements needed to get the building up to code would be too costly.
“A new sprinkler system would be about $10,000,” he said.
Part of the reason Goodale wanted to be involved in the project was to bring something new to Fort Dodge.
“I still hope we can make this happen somewhere,” he said. “I hope the city will help us help them. We put this together to bring people in.”
Hergenreter said he appreciates the efforts of the volunteers.
“I appreciate what Brooke was doing to have a fun event,” he said. “She and some of her organizers put in a lot of work.”
He added, “My heart goes out to her and her friends on that, but you still have to make sure it’s meeting all the regulations for safety purposes.”
Hergenreter cited a fatal fire in Oakland, California, as an example of what can happen if regulations are not met.
A concert was hosted in a warehouse called the Ghost Ship in December 2016 when a fire broke out.
Residential and entertainment uses were not allowed under the warehouse’s permits at the time of the fire, according to published news reports.
“That has some close parallels with this situation, and there ended up being 36 fatalities,” Hergenreter said.
Prior to the announcement that the Fort Dodge Fear Factory would be closed, Bickford sold about 40 tickets at a cost of $10 per ticket, she said.
A number of sponsors also contributed.
“If we aren’t able to put this on everyone will be refunded,” she said. “I already reached out to the sponsors when I thought we were maybe at a dead end.”
She said the sponsors told her to wait and see what happens.
Funds raised from the event were to go to two local charities, AFES and Yeah, Baby. AFES is Athletics for Education and Success, which is an after school program. Yeah, Baby is a charity to help young moms in the area.
David Fierke, Fort Dodge city manager, said the bottom line is safety.
“It’s really about life safety and safety of people using that,” he said. “I don’t think at anytime we were bullying Brooke or the people she worked with. In fact, we had a list we were going to try to find ways to make it work.”
Fierke said the city acted responsibly.
“In this case our job or folks that work for the city, is to protect the health, life, and safety of the people and we are going to do whatever it takes to do that,” he said.
Fierke said his message to residents of Fort Dodge going forward is to communicate.
“If someone has an idea or wants to do something, come see us first so we can work through the key life safety issues before a bunch of time and money is invested,” he said. “We are here to do that. We are not here to stop things. We are here to make things happen. But it has to be safe.”