A group hoping to save the Keller Building had their tour of the facility snuffed out Tuesday afternoon when a man yelled, "There's a fire!"
The irony was not lost on the coterie of preservationists, architectural representatives and city officials.
A cutting torch used to remove a fire escape at the fifth-floor level sparked the small, smoky blaze that sent the group's immediate discussion of restoration up in smoke.
But watching firefighters douse the flames, confined to a wooden window frame, didn't dampen the group's enthusiasm for a potential transformation of the former paper factory adjacent to Jackson Street Pier.
Heritage Ohio, a state partner of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has named the Keller Building one of "Ohio's Top Preservation Opportunities." The designation comes with technical support Sandusky may need to complete what would likely be at least an $8 million project.
"We have to look at ways to capitalize on what we have," chief city planner Carrie Handy said. "We had to wait for developers to realize that historic buildings have potential. People are starting to realize that we've lost some of the historic assets in our community."
The building received the honor for its historic significance, its importance to the city and community support, said Joyce Barrett, Heritage Ohio's executive director. It was nominated by John Lippus of the Sandusky Downtown Association.
Lippus said the building hasn't been fully occupied for about 30 years.
"But now with redevelopment it can become an integral part of the city," he said.
Interest in restoring old buildings has surged nationwide, due in part to economics, Handy said. The rising expense of constructing and operating new businesses in suburbs has led cities to reconsider the value of rehabilitating underutilized historic properties.
Louis Fenzel, a project manager for Sandvick Architects of Cleveland, said the local project would also be a broader part of the environmental green movement.
"If you start the preservation and restoration of the city, it stimulates further growth and development. You want to take a lemon and make lemonade," he said.
With the aid of available federal and historic state tax credits the 80,000-square-foot Keller Building can be developed for less than $100 per square foot, Barrett said. The structure -- which was originally three buildings joined in 1901 -- would prove a challenge, but a project is feasible.
Lippus said the building's rough-looking exterior doesn't preclude a future for the property.
"It doesn't mean that the bones of the building are bad," he said.
City economic development specialist Scott Schell said Ohio Heritage has inspired planners to say anything is possible.
"The more older properties are purchased and rehabilitated, the more people see it can happen," he said. "Restoration feeds upon itself. It will be a shot in the arm for us.
The city will now send requests for proposals to regional historical property developers. Barrett said nay-sayers of a restoration project must understand that a negative attitude can quickly kill any hope for success.
"The (opportunities) list is all about optimism and ambition," she said.