Mel’s fire ruled arson

Even eight months after the blaze, questions still remain in the fire that destroyed several businesses in the Campus Court plaza at 140 University Ave. on April 22.

Last week, the report of Ontario’s fire marshall confirmed that the fire, which caused approximately $3 million in damage, was in fact being treated as arson and the criminal investigation has now been turned over to Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS).

Unfortunately, the treatment of the case as arson has been the sole new development since the blaze, the aftermath of which saw accusations proliferate on the Internet as to where it originated and to who may have started it.

“If you look at the Facebook groups and all the social media going around at the time, there was a lot of commentary about what may or may not have happened,” said Jerry Smith, owner of Mel’s Diner.

His business was not yet in reach of the flames when he arrived at the scene that morning and he was forced to watch it burn, saving only some possessions from inside.

WRPS spokesman Olaf Heinzel explained that since there is now an active criminal investigation into the matter, no further details will be released for the time being.

“At this point, they can’t really discuss the particular details of the investigation,” he said of the investigators. “But as we move forward we might be able to, when it’s appropriate, release further information.”

Smith congratulated the fire marshall’s office on its findings.

“I wasn’t surprised,” he said of the report’s verdict of arson. “It’s terrible, but I can’t wait for the day until they find out who it was.”

He was careful not to speculate further on his own theories of what may have happened.

“I personally don’t want to put my family in danger by making any insinuations or innuendos about what happened,” he said, adding, “but I believe firmly that it will all come out nicely in the wash.”

Though rumours of culpability circulated in the days and weeks after the fire, the delay of several months in declaring it arson was not unusual according to Waterloo Fire Rescue spokesman John Percy. “Because of the magnitude of the fire, obviously our protocol is to notify [the Ontario Fire Marshall] and they come in to do the physical investigation,” he explained. “They had sent samples to the Centre for Forensic Sciences in Toronto, and that process takes a while.”

While Smith says there is some consolation in the findings, he and other business owners are facing difficulties in rebuilding what was lost.

Early speculation had projected that construction was to begin months ago, but Smith said the landowner is receiving offers from numerous parties that would redevelop the site to create high-density housing.

“At this point it could go either way,” he explained. “The landowner has offers coming in from all over the world from developers who want to buy it and level it and put up a 38 story building.”

He added, “The city of Waterloo is right there with the building permit to let them do that because they want higher-density usage there.”

Smith and the owners of Mr. Sushi and University Vision Centre met with the mayor and others from the city recently to advocate for rebuilding. “I don’t think they were seeing what was happening behind the scenes, the fact that there are people relying on this to get their businesses and lives back in order,” he said.

Smith is now more optimistic about reopening in Waterloo, possibly as soon as September, though he has secured a site to build a new eatery at the intersection of King and Victoria in Kitchener.

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