ELKHART — It has been a year since a devastating fire reduced a historical building at 612 Main Street to a pile of rubble and Jan Hardy is still left wondering when he will be able to make repairs to his bar.
Owner of Hardy's Bar, located at 610 N. Main Street, right next to where the fire occurred, Hardy has a front seat to the pile of rubble that remains. The south side of his bar, a brick wall that used to be inside, but is now exposed to the elements, needs to be repaired, but Hardy says he can't do the work until the pile of rubble is removed.
"It just needs some brick work," he said. "I have paid for structural engineers to come and look at the wall, and they say it has no structural issues."
The fire occurred in the early evening hours of July 19, 2016 and took hours for firefighters to completely contain. It forced the closure of Main Street south from Marion Street to Middlebury Street, for more than two-and-a-half hours.
The pile of rubble however, is proving both difficult and costly to remove. Jim Wagner, the owner of the former structure, had originally told the city that he would work to have the rubble pile removed, but after months of waiting the city saw no real progress on cleaning up the eyesore.
Wagner was assessed a $5,000 fine by Elkhart Hearing Officer LeeRoy Berry on Nov. 30 for failing to cleanup the site and the city also received authority to cleanup the mess in November. Randy Arndt, the deputy city attorney for Elkhart, said in March that it appears Wagner had no insurance to cover the loss of the building or the cleanup costs, hence the slow process so far.
Preparations are underway to spend $85,000 to clear the rubble pile, $20,000 of which has already been spent on emergency demolition work the night of the fire. Funding for the removal of the rubble pile is set to come up during a meeting of the City Council's Finance Committee at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, July 24. The funding is included with $255,000 of other demolition projects the city is planning.
The city had received a $40,000 bid to remove the rubble before engineers raised concerns about the neighboring buildings. City officials say that extra care will be needed when removing the rubble and that the low-vibration method required is driving up costs.
A lien will be placed on the property after the cleanup process is completed, meaning Wagner will have to pay back the city if he wants to keep the property or the city will start the foreclosure process. It also means that the city could tack on the lien amount to any sale price if a developer wants to buy the property.
The city hopes to have the cleanup work completed as soon as possible.
Jim Wagner was not available for comment on this story.
The 612 S. Main St. building was built around 1905, according to Elkhart historian Paul Thomas, operator of the Time Was Museum. It's served as a theater and clothing stores over the years and, on the second floor, housed fraternal and social clubs. Phil Stiver, owner of the building in the 1970s and 1980s, said it even housed a speakeasy during the Prohibition era.
"There was just so much history in this building," he said while visiting the charred remains of the structure last summer. "It was a landmark here on Main Street."
The structure isn't the first downtown building to go up in flames.
A building burned down years ago where the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce now sits on Main Street, Thomas said. Likewise, the grassy area just to the south of the chamber at the northeast corner of Main and Marion streets once housed three structures, which all burned down, among several others over the years.
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