Firefighters on Wednesday night briefly fought an apparent arson fire at the former St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Hall building in northwest Indiana, part of a proposed site of an immigrant detention center.
The building caught fire about 7 p.m., Hobart Police Chief Richard Zormier said.
City Councilman John Brezik said he arrived at the scene soon after the fire trucks to see a small fire and a lot of smoke coming out of the church’s former social hall, which had been vacant for several years and was boarded up recently by its new owners at the city’s request.
"There was more smoke than flames," Brezik said, adding that firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze.
He said it appeared that someone pushed in one of the boards to gain entry.
“The building has no power, and the fire obviously didn’t start by itself,” Brezik said.
The building and surrounding land along 49th Avenue, a total of 40 acres, were sold in December to The GEO Group, a Florida-based operator of correctional and immigrant detention facilities. The company has proposed building and operating an immigrant detention center on the site that would process undocumented immigrants and detain them while they await deportation.
"The property has been vacant for a long time," Zormier said. "It has been in disrepair for years."
He said the building had a previous fire “years ago” as well as having been vandalized several times.
Councilman P. Lino Maggio said he told GEO officials in a recent meeting with them that he’d like to see the vacant and vandalized building torn down.
"But not this way," Maggio said.