Bank’s window reopens months after collapse|[5/04/06]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 4, 2006

After 3 1/2 months, the drive-through window of a downtown bank closed by a building that partially collapsed in January has been reopened – along with a small section of Clay Street’s 700 block.

The city’s tourism arms, however – the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, Vicksburg Main Street and the Vicksburg-Warren Community Alliance, all headquartered in a building adjacent to the collapsed complex – remained in temporary locations across the city this morning.

Since the collapse, customers could enter the Walnut Street ramp leading to Trustmark Bank’s drive-through below the two-story parking garage behind the bank’s main branch, but could not exit onto Clay Street because of debris from the old Thomas Furniture building, parts of which remained standing uneasily across the street following the vacant structure’s Jan. 25 collapse during cleaning. Those remaining sections posed potential dangers of further collapse even as construction crews clogged the street and put up chain-link fences at each end of the block to keep out cars and foot traffic.

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Once crews patched a hole in the west wall of the Adolph Rose Antiques building, however, and the building’s owner, Malcolm Allred, had moved with his wife back into the couple’s third-floor apartment last month, city officials decided to open the eastbound lane of Clay Street for about half the block – just enough to allow the bank’s customers to exit the garage and pull back onto Walnut Street.

&#8220We are extremely pleased,” Jerry Hall, president of Trustmark’s Vicksburg and Delta region, said after the drive-through was reopened Tuesday. &#8220I’ve had several customers tell me how pleased they are.”

Further up the block, at Clay and Walnut, the B’nai B’rith Club remained open and has hosted three weddings and several parties since February, said Story Ebersole, whose business, Storycook, operates in the building. She said permission was sought and received to move the fences back a few feet for the couples’ cars to fit on Walnut Street.

&#8220We’re still glad it’s gone,” Ebersole said of the barrier that had fenced the business off from cars.

Main Street has no plans yet to move back downtown from City Hall, where its two employees have reported to work since being asked to move on Feb. 15, three weeks after the collapse, said Assistant Director Erin Hern. VCVB employees will continue in the bureau’s Clay Street location across from Vicksburg National Military Park, said Larry Gawronski, director of the Vicksburg Convention Center.

&#8220We have not received clearance yet from Victor Grey-Lewis,” said Gawronski, who was trying to reach the city’s head of inspections this morning for more information on the block’s partial reopening.

Sidewalks are open, but the block’s Washington Street entrance may remain fenced from cars for several more months. The collapsed portion of the old Thomas building, at 711 Clay, and the still-standing but damaged structures at 707 and 709 Clay have hardly been touched by cleanup crews, and work on the properties was taken over by the city in March after owners Preston and Mary Reuther failed to submit a plan for stabilizing the structures.

The board of mayor and aldermen approved a $17,500 contract to hire engineer Patrick Sparks to put together a cleanup plan for the property on April 3. After that is completed, the city will advertise for a contractor to begin cleanup based on its guidelines. The engineer’s report is due later this week, said Mayor Laurence Leyens.

&#8220The engineer’s been here, and he’s the one who said we could move the barricades and open the lane back up,” Leyens said.

Grey-Lewis agreed that there was little chance of further collapse barring a natural disaster or other unforeseen calamity, pointing out that the structures withstood high winds this weekend without incident.

Trustmark’s drive-through averaged about 80 vehicles per day before the collapse that it couldn’t serve while the street was closed, said Hall, but even business inside the bank had thinned with the loss of the first floor of the parking garage. One of Trustmark’s six other Vicksburg branches could take on the drive-up traffic, he said, but some services – mortgages, trusts, investments, commercial lending, safety deposit boxes – are available only at the main branch, where the street blockage caused sudden parking congestion that drove some walk-in customers away.

&#8220Things had slowed down here with our lobby traffic because of the parking situation,” he said. &#8220People using the night deposit had to walk quite a way from their cars, and that’s not good. Customers had been parking on Washington Street, which was not good for the merchants.”

It was a happy day, then, when city inspector Grey-Lewis told Hall the bank would be able to get that traffic back again, and when the first cars rolled down the Walnut Street ramp and up to the teller Tuesday afternoon.

&#8220This was a good day to have it open back,” Hall said Wednesday, the third of the month, when many government checks are cashed or deposited. &#8220We’re trying to get the word out to our customers that it is open.”