Fire set at ISU Horticulture Center causing $5,500 in damage; being investigated as arson

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NORMAL, Ill. (WMBD) — Fire investigators say a fire at the Illinois State University (ISU) Horticulture Center early Saturday morning, Feb. 27, was set on purpose.

Public Information Officer Matt Swaney with the Normal Fire Department told WMBD the case is now being investigated as a criminal arson by local police departments.

The fire was set inside a small toolshed at approximately midnight Saturday, during an hour when the center is supposed to be closed.

Director of the ISU Horticulture Center Jessica Chambers said it may seem small to some, but to a group that’s mostly volunteers, it’s a big setback.

“I’m really thankful that the whole toolshed didn’t burn down. I mean with the whole toolshed gone, I’d be crying right now,” Chambers said. “I would hope that if someone had told them what we try and do; just connecting people to nature, I’d hope people would be like, ‘That’s a good cause, I wouldn’t burn their shed.'”

Normal Fire Department spokesperson Matt Swaney said there’s no evidence to support an accidental cause and the structure has no electricity to cause the fire.

Chambers said a masonry saw worth $4,500, shovels and tree watering bags worth $25 each were all destroyed in the fire. In total, the damage is estimated to be at least $5,500.

“They probably do it because they think it’s fun without realizing how difficult it is for someone that just tries to make their community a better place,” Chambers said. “We have to fundraise for everything at the center and so knowing that you just took two steps back is frustrating, but we’ll persevere. Just like nature does, we’ll keep going.”

Janet Tulley is a volunteer at the horticulture center and said she and her family regularly volunteer there. She said the center employs and pays a small number of staff and most of the work and planting is done by volunteers.

“It just doesn’t happen overnight, so I think that’s a really big deal and I would just love to talk to the people that did it and say, ‘Let me show you how important this is to us,'” Tulley said.

The center serves as an outdoor lab for students as well as a place for the public to take in nature at their own leisure. Tulley said it’s a place many people take senior pictures or engagement photos.

“I think there’s a greater recognition of the space itself now and that people do have a relationship with it,” Tulley said.

Donations to the horticulture center are being accepted to replace the damaged tools.

Both this fire and another intentional fire to a ‘free little library’ nearby on Constitution Trail are being investigated as arson and vandalism by Normal and ISU Police Departments.

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