UPDATED 06/04/12 4:00 p.m.
OAK PARK, Ill. (CBS) – Oak Park authorities say signs point to arson as the cause of the weekend fire that heavily damaged a gay bar.
As WBBM Newsradio’s Steve Miller reports, Oak Park has called in the Illinois State fire marshal to investigate the fire, which broke out around 6 a.m. Sunday at the Velvet Rope Ultra Lounge, at 728 Lake St. in Oak Park.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Steve Miller Reports
A statement from Oak Park authorities says there is probable cause to indicate arson — somewhat of a relief to owner Frank Elliott.
“I’d much rather it’s arson, than it just being a hate crime toward alternative lifestyles in general,” Elliott said. “I would rather have it be that than directed specifically to me, or to one of my employees, or something like that.”
But he says there is a possibility the arson is a hate crime because there were derogatory messages scrawled on the wall. Oak Park authorities scrubbed them off the wall after the fire before he could see them, he said.
Elliott tells Miller he is set to open another bar called Bonsai Bar & Lounge, in the former Leather Sport space at 3503-05 N. Halsted St. in Boystown.
“I’m planning on rebuilding it; on getting it, you know, bigger and better,” Elliott said. said. “In the interim, we’re taking all of our staff – or as I call it, more of our family – to our Chicago location which will be opening in about two weeks,” he said. “And we obviously will kick butt in Chicago and then once we’re back in Oak Park we’ll be even better.”
The Sunday morning fire gutted the interior of the Oak Park club, which pedestrians could see from the street. The interior was left covered in black soot. The plate glass window lay in shards of the sidewalk in front of the club.
Meanwhile, neighboring businesses Geppetto’s Toy Store and the Flat Top Grill also sustained damage in the Oak Park fire.
Oak Park residents say the suggestion that hate could be behind the fire is disturbing.
“Some people probably are not receptive to this lifestyle in their community,” Karen Brown says.
“It’s kind of upsetting to think that that would take place here,” Liz Johnson says. “I just hope people know that’s not really the spirit of this community. It’s a very open and welcoming community.”
The Web site for the Velvet Ultra Lounge describes it as “a place for the mature and sexy; the stylish and sophisticated; and anyone who likes being treated as a VIP.”
The club offers a cocktail and martini selection and a boutique wine list, along with a small plate food venue. Visitors have been treated to events such as drag queen bingo, smooth house Saturdays, and Sunday Funday karaoke.