General Foods Haunted Factory

Organizers of the Haunted Factory at the old General Foods plant in Kankakee failed to get a permit or an exemption from the state last year, according to the Illinois Department of Labor. 

KANKAKEE — Yet another issue with the annual Haunted Factory has emerged: Organizers failed to seek a state permit last year.

This news comes in light of the recent state fire marshal investigation that found dozens of alleged violations at the old General Foods building, where the haunted house takes place.

According to the state Department of Labor, the American Center for Emergency Response and Education, or ACERE, which owns the General Foods building, did not file for a permit or an exemption for the haunted house last year.

The group is attempting to get a permit this year, with the inspection scheduled for Wednesday, the department reported. The haunted house has been held for five years.

Built in 1937, General Foods’ eight-story mill was the heart of its pet food production for many years. The mill has not been used for more than three decades. Besides the mill, ACERE also owns the nearby set of silos that could store 1 million bushels of grain, and the 7.2 acres surrounding the structures.

ACERE holds training exercises for firefighters, police officers and others in the building.

The state fire marshal’s report indicated that its re-inspection of the General Foods building would be “on or about” Nov. 1.

But Alex Paterakis, ACERE’s president, said there was still a chance his group would hold a haunted house in time for Halloween.

“I don’t know if it’s going to happen yet,” he said. “We’re getting maintenance done on the building.”

‘TOTALLY’ SEPARATE

Late last year, the ACERE board’s membership entirely changed, from local residents to residents of suburban Lake County, Paterakis said.

Before then, Cecil Carroll, a retired U.S. Army colonel from Chebanse, was the president, while Kankakee fire Capt. Mike Casagrande served as secretary-treasurer.

Casagrande said another group took care of the haunted house and the proceeds went to ACERE and other organizations. He said the original organizing group was the since-closed Aquinas Catholic Academy, but it evolved into something else after the school’s closure. He said he wasn’t sure of its name now.

“You’d have to ask them,” he said, adding that ACERE and the other group were “totally” separate.

He said ACERE got the paperwork ready for the Department of Labor permit in previous years and then gave it to the other group to send to the state.

“Whether the documents were sent I have no idea,” Casagrande said.

Last week, Kankakee city officials announced that because of the state fire marshal’s investigation, Fire Chief Damon Schuldt would work to make sure the building comes into compliance. The city has ordered ACERE to suspend any activities in the building until further notice.

“The Kankakee Fire Department invited the fire marshal’s office in,” Casagrande said. “The chief and I had a conversation that we felt it was the right thing to do. We sent a letter to the state fire marshal’s office to request it.”

Like Casagrande, Paterakis did not have details on the group’s name or structure. And he declined to give names of those involved. He said they are volunteers and that his group would handle dealings with the media.

A review of Facebook posts on the Haunted Factory Facebook page suggests ACERE and the unnamed group are closely tied.

WORKING FOR ACERE?

Last November, the page manager posted about a break-in where windows were broken and props for emergency services training were damaged.

“Our wonderful cast and crew already said that this will not get us down and they are already looking forward to rebuilding and trying to find things to improve on everything we do for Acere and for the Haunted Factory,” the post said.

The Daily Journal sent a private message to the manager to find out which group runs the Haunted Factory, but no one answered.

Over the last few months, resident Pat Wilder has posted photos and comments about the alleged problems at the Haunted Factory. He said he did so at the prompting of another resident, Jeff Hutson, who said he was involved in the committee that organized the haunted houses.

In response, an attorney for ACERE sent a letter to the two men asking them to stop airing their concerns publicly, accusing them of defaming the organization. The attorney has since backed off, saying the group is investigating the building issues.

The state fire marshal’s investigation found, among other things, that all exits but one were barricaded shut, a fire alarm system needed to be installed, the electrical system was in “deplorable condition,” and all the fire extinguishers were dated 1999.

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