Plan for collapsed building expected to be OK’d ‘soon’|[5/26/06]

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 26, 2006

Plans to begin work on stabilizing the downtown building that partially collapsed in January have been reviewed and should be approved &#8220soon,” Vicksburg officials said.

The report submitted by private engineer Patrick Sparks does not, however, address any long-term plans for replacing the 125-year-old brick structure, a long-time hardware store in the center of what’s known as the &#8220Hoffman Block” and most recently open as Thomas Furniture.

&#8220That will be up to the owners,” Preston and Mary Reuther, said Victor Gray-Lewis, head of the city Inspections Department, though Preston Reuther on Thursday called the property &#8220the city’s baby.”

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&#8220I can’t spend $400,000 on a building our structural engineer says should be torn down. I wouldn’t spend $40 on it,” Reuther said. &#8220If they think those buildings are worth all this trouble, then I wish them luck.”

The 50,000-square-foot building was being cleared by the Reuthers to become an antique shopping mall when it imploded Jan. 25. Twenty-seven workers inside scrambled out to safety. One block of Clay Street was closed to vehicles that day and owners of adjacent structures have been wary.

Sparks’ report called for a &#8220temporary stabilization” to secure and clean the structure, part of which remains standing, and allow the remainder of the 700 block of Clay Street to reopen, Gray-Lewis said. The east end of the block reopened earlier this month to give vehicles access to the B’nai B’rith Club, Adolph Rose Antiques, the bottom level of the Trustmark Bank parking garage and the bank’s drive-through window teller. The Vicksburg Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, Vicksburg Main Street and the Vicksburg-Warren Community Alliance – have remained out of the building at Clay and Washington.

&#8220It’s not a complete stabilization, which would require the building to be inhabited,” Gray-Lewis said. &#8220This is what the city feels it’s obligated to do so we can get more of the street reopened, so VCVB can occupy its building, so Main Street can go back into its building.”

The report was reviewed by the city’s inspection and legal teams and sent back to Sparks with notes, he added. Once Sparks sends his notes back to the city, the two sides will collaborate to work up a final version of the plans, then advertise for and hire a contractor to carry out the work.

&#8220We’re really waiting on (Sparks),” Gray-Lewis said. &#8220It’ll be soon, I hope.”

The city took over the project in March, when the deadline it had set for the Reuthers to submit plans for the property lapsed without any contact between the two sides. The Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved $17,500 at its April 3 meeting to hire Sparks.

The Reuthers had submitted stabilization plans approved by Gray-Lewis and the Board of Mayor and Aldermen in February, but subsequently fired the contractor who drew them up, Freddie Parson, who said he was unable to obtain insurance required before he could start working.

Two other local contractors Reuther hired said they were also unable to get the necessary insurance to begin work before the March 11 deadline expired.

Since, both city officials and Reuther have said communication between them has been virtually nonexistent. Mayor Laurence Leyens has said Reuther has &#8220a wide open door” to submit plans and begin cleaning the property. Reuther, however, after initially vowing to rebuild, has said he is &#8220disenchanted” with the city’s response to the collapse, accused officials of being anti-small business, auctioned off what remained of the antiques intended for the building and put up for sale five of the 14 properties he and his wife bought since moving from New Orleans five years ago. One of those, a vacant lot on China Street behind the collapsed Clay Street complex, sold to Vicksburg Municipal Airport Board secretary Jay Kilroy this month.

&#8220I don’t want to move. We have a nice home. We have a nice business,” said Reuther, who owns Master Wire Sculpture on Clay Street. &#8220But I don’t think we could grow here, and I’ve pretty much got all my real estate for sale. We’re thinking about moving.”

If a dilapidated property’s owners fail to clean it, the city can put a tax lien on the deed, Leyens said.