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Underground Gym spared worst from fire

The loss of some musical equipment and the heavy smell of smoke in the air the only casualties from Tuesday night blaze that destroyed two neighbouring buildings.

THUNDER BAY – As he cracked open the door to the Underground Gym, Peter Panetta expected the worst.

Two days earlier, a fire tore through the two buildings next door, including the Hells Angels’ clubhouse, destroying both in the process.

Panetta, who founded the Undergound Gym, said he was told he’d likely find extensive smoke and water damage at his facility, which provides programming to underprivileged youth in an economically depressed area of Thunder Bay.

Instead, he was amazed, as he looked up at the ceiling, the drawing of his young charges that plaster the ceiling of the already dilapidated building still intact.

It’s unbelievable, Panetta said.

“I’m actually blown away at the work. I saw the video clip (of the fire) and I saw the firemen going in and out of this door, and one of them was (using) an axe on the corner there, chopping things up,” Panetta said.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, this is pretty bad.’ But what bad? I’m totally amazed how they were able to salvage this. That just puts a whole new perspective on this.”

He expects the only real damage inflicted was to a collection of donated instruments, which remain covered by tarps in the Simpson Street landmark, where the dank smell of smoke still permeates the air following the Tuesday night blaze.

Panetta said he was sure it was going to be the end of the road at the Underground Gym, at least at its current location.

“The assumption is that it’s done,” he said.

“Where are you going to go now? What are you going to do? The last-case scenario is we’ll run it out of the bus.”

Panetta plans to use that bus on Thursday night to take the kids who use the gym swimming at the Canada Games Complex, as there is still no electricity flowing through the building. But he’s fully hopeful the facility will be up and running as usual by next week.

He’s been given the OK by firefighters to go back inside, but without heat or power, it’s not really safe to allow the youth back in.

As joyful as Panetta is with the condition of the Underground Gym, Panetta is still concerned about the long-term future at the current location, which he paid $200 in a city tax sale.

The floor has started caving in under the boxing ring, the roof leaks and rats have moved in.

Panetta said there may be some light on the horizon. He’s found a new location, which he can get for about $85,000, as early as the spring.

But as always, money is the main concern, given that he operates the Underground Gym on a shoestring budget, almost fully reliant on donations from the public.

“These can’t last,” he said. “These buildings are completely done. They’ve been done for years, because we keep hanging on and hanging on and hanging on because we have no other options,” Panetta said. “Ideally it would be nice to bulldoze this place and build something brand new. I don’t know what the cost is for something like that.

“The location I’ve found, is it ideal? No not at all. But it’s under $100,000.”

Leith Dunick

About the Author: Leith Dunick

A proud Nova Scotian who has called Thunder Bay home since 2002, Leith is Dougall Media's director of news, but still likes to tell your stories too. Wants his Expos back and to see Neil Young at least one more time. Twitter: @LeithDunick
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