Collapsed building court date delayed| [8/19/06]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 19, 2006

The fate of the 140-year-old downtown building that partially collapsed in January will be put on hold at least two more months, until a November court date, to settle a dispute between the owners of the property and the City of Vicksburg.

A hearing on the site had been scheduled for Nov. 15 and 16 at the Sunflower County Courthouse in Indianola, City Attorney Nancy Thomas said Thursday.

&#8220It’ll be status quo until the hearing, unless we work something out before then,” she said.

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The complex remains virtually untouched since the Jan. 25 collapse. Its owners, Preston and Mary Reuther, filed a complaint for injunction in Warren County Chancery Court last week to rescind the city’s July 5 stop work order on the remnants of 707 and 709 Clay St. and the still-standing but potentially wobbly neighbors at 711 and 713 Clay.

The petition also asks for permission to demolish all of the buildings and revealed the Reuthers have contracted with Bill Greenwood of Bentonia-based Antique Wood and Brick of Mississippi to conduct a brick-by-brick &#8220careful dismantling” for $10 and the right to salvage all materials. Their estimate for stabilizing the structures in February, based on an assessment by architect Skippy Tuminello, was about $100,000.

&#8220Clearly, despite the city’s assertions, demolition is the least expensive alternative for the plaintiffs,” the complaint said.

Mary Reuther said the property could not be sold because there has been no interest from potential buyers.

Mayor Laurence Leyens, however, has contended the buildings, at the heart of what was once known as the &#8220Hoffman Block” and most recently the home of Thomas Furniture, are historic landmarks that can be saved &#8220in an economical way.” He and both aldermen voted down the Reuthers’ initial request for a permit to demolish the buildings in February.

&#8220I’m looking forward to our day in court,” Leyens told the Vicksburg Kiwanis Club last week when asked about the buildings. Earlier in the week, he said he believed he could prove the Reuthers knew the risks associated with the building when they bought it last October and that their crews were responsible for its collapse because they were using a pressure washer to clean the first floor before the fall.

&#8220I plan to go to court, I plan on demonstrating they caused the problem,” Leyens said. &#8220They understood the nature of their building.”

If the city is allowed to proceed with contracting out the stabilizing, all costs would be assessed to the Reuthers through a lien on property taxes. The city opened a $69,875 bid from Riverside Construction for that work last month. Immediately after the collapse, Riverside was hired to patch the Adolph Rose building adjacent to the collapse, which had sustained a massive hole in its west wall.

The request for injunction was filed on the final day of a 30-day deadline set by the city for Greenwood to submit plans of work for stabilization. That stay had been granted last month, when Greenwood was hired by the Reuthers after showing up at their front door to inquire about the project.

The 30 days, however, ended with the two sides at an impasse, no plans submitted, the Reuthers claiming no buyers have come forward because the property has no value and should be demolished, the city accusing the owners of withholding an asking price to keep interested buyers away and each accusing the other of unnecessarily holding up the reopening of 700 block of Clay between Washington and Walnut streets. The Walnut Street entrance to the block has reopened enough to allow access to the Adolph Rose Antiques building, the B’Nai B’Rith Club and the Trustmark Bank drive-through window. The Washington Street entrance remains blocked by a chain-link fence, and the three of the city’s tourism arms – the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, Vicksburg Main Street and the Vicksburg-Warren Community Alliance – are each in new locations from their now-vacant spot at Washington and Clay.

The couple has said they plan to leave Vicksburg, five years after moving from New Orleans and buying more than a dozen properties, mostly for rentals. Their Clay Street business, Master Wire Sculpture, was closed and its windows boarded up after multiple cases of vandalism following the closure, Mary Reuther said.

&#8220We’re not running out of town,” Preston Reuther said last month. &#8220We’re going to take care of our responsibility here. That building’s going to be addressed.”

Friday, when the petition for an injunction was filed, was the second city-set deadline that has elapsed on the Reuthers. The Board of Mayor and Aldermen established a March 11 deadline for work to begin based on stabilization plans drawn up by the Reuthers’ contractor, Freddie Parson.

Parson, however, was subsequently fired for failing to begin work, which he said he was unable to do because he had received only mandatory insurance the day before his termination.

In April, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved $17,500 to hire Texas engineer Patrick Sparks to draw a blueprint for stabilizing the property, and plans to approve a bid for work based on Sparks’ plan after a ruling on the injunction.