HELENA – Two teenagers arrested after a fire at the 7th Avenue Gym Tuesday night made their first appearance in court Wednesday.
The teens appeared by video from the Juvenile Detention Center in Great Falls.
The Helena Police Department said officers responded to the gym just before 6:30 p.m., after a witness reported seeing someone breaking windows. When HPD arrived, they found the building full of smoke.
Officers said the teenagers were inside the building when they arrived. They said the two tried to run away, but were eventually taken into custody.
Police said the Helena Fire Department later found a garbage can that had been set on fire in the gym’s basement.
A 14-year-old boy is charged with arson, burglary, criminal mischief and obstructing a peace officer, while a 15-year-old boy is accused of criminal trespass, obstructing a peace officer and accountability for criminal mischief.
District Judge Kathy Seeley ordered the 14-year-old to remain in custody in Great Falls, until juvenile probation officers can find an alternative placement for him. His attorney had asked that he be released to his parents with electronic monitoring, but prosecutors opposed that request, saying he had been linked to a previous negligent arson several weeks earlier.
Seeley ruled that the 15-year-old, who did not have prior citations, could be released into his mother’s custody.
Both teens are scheduled for another court appearance next week.
Helena Public Schools Superintendent Jack Copps said the district is still assessing the full damage from the fire. He said there was significant smoke damage throughout the building, though the fire was confined to a hallway and locker room in the basement. Several exterior windows and interior doors were broken. The district had also been storing equipment for students with special needs in the gym basement, and Copps said they will have to check if those items are still usable.
During Wednesday’s court hearing, an HPD officer said the total damage would likely be more than $1,500. Copps said the district is working to determine how much of the cost will be covered by insurance.
District crews were already on scene early Wednesday morning to board up the windows that had been broken. Copps said they may also consider covering up other entrances, to deter future break-ins.
The 7th Avenue Gym was completed in 1908, and has been closed since 2013. School board trustee Terry Beaver said the district commissioned an engineering report that found the building could suffer serious damage in an earthquake. It came around the same time that the district closed the adjacent Central School building over similar structural concerns.
Copps said the district is concerned about the gym sitting vacant for so long.
“When buildings are empty, obviously they invite vandalism and people breaking into the building and all that sort of thing,” he said. “So it is a liability to us.”
He said the issue will be even more important as a new Central School is built near the gym. Construction of that building is scheduled to begin this spring.
“The school district is anxious to go through a process that will identify how this building can be put to a useful purpose,” said Copps.
Last year, the district received roughly $23,000 in grant money from the Montana Department of Commerce, through the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund program. Leaders will use that money – and provide matching funds from the district – to pay for a preliminary architectural study and report on possible opportunities to repurpose the 7th Avenue Gym. SMA Architects of Helena is scheduled to complete the report by September.
Copps said it is now a matter of finding the right individual or group with a plan for the historic gym.
“We, like a number of people in this town, are hoping that that building can be preserved,” he said.