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The spring of 2013 was a tough one for Shelbyville’s downtown.
What was a hub of evening commerce on Main Street with Fiesta Mexicana, a burgeoning computer store, a counseling center and a recently renovated storefront were reduced to ruble in a just a few hours as fire ripped through three buildings and damaged two more.
Shelbyville and Shelby County fire departments were on the scene before daybreak and battled through freezing temperatures to contain the fire, but a hole still remains in one of the city’s most historic blocks.
Then, just a few weeks later, on a Sunday, April 28, fire struck again, this time at 617 Washington Street – literally within sight of that first site.
Shelbyville firefighters were on scene by 10:30 a.m. and, again working with Shelby County firefighters, had the blaze under control by 11:30.
But now, more than nine months from the first fire, both areas remain in flux as plans continue to evolve. One seems destined to wait its turn, and the other appears only to await some final decisions.
Jimmy Reynolds, who owns two of the properties affected by the Main Street fire, at the time, was devastated.
“After the fire, it took me a while to get closure,” he said. “I had thirty years in those buildings. It was tough to watch our retirement go up in flames.”
Reynolds, now though, believes he’s ready to move on.
“Luckily I’m young enough to hit it [retirement] again,” he said. “I guess it took about six months. Then we took some of the insurance money and bought another piece of property, and we’re going to move out there.”
Reynolds purchased the spot on Frankfort Road where the old train caboose used to sit and housed Martin Jewelers. A smaller building once housed the popular Dairy Dell.
“The bad thing is I had that downtown spot just about like I wanted it. It was in really good shape,” he said. “But now I got two new buildings to work on.”
A hole on Main
Reynolds said not much has changed since right after the fire.
“We thought we could really do something down there,” he said. “But now we’re still waiting to see what happens.”
Immediately after the fire Reynolds said he went to work to try to get an idea developing for that space.
“I tried to work out a deal with the Fiesta guys to buy the other lot,” he said.
But the group had already decided to move, leaving Reynolds grasping.
“Without that other spot, all I could really build was a small building, and it just wasn’t really worth it. To rebuild just where Sam’s Place was [618 Main Street] was going to be about three hundred and thirty-six thousand, and I never would have gotten my money back out of that.”
Shelbyville Mayor Tom Hardesty said he hasn’t heard of any entity interested or ready to move back into that spot.
“I know there was some talk early on, but I haven’t heard anything recently,” he said.
Reynolds said his original plan was to incorporate a small courtyard around some shops, but without the space and grant money, it’s just not feasible.
“It would have been a nice centerpiece, but it just wasn’t going to work,” he said. “I kind of jumped into it quickly, and I think that was my way of dealing with it. Then reality set in and I couldn’t get it done.”
But he’d still like to find a way to make the lot useful.
“Downtown really needs additional parking badly,” he said. “That might be something we can do. I’d really like utilize that space in a way that would benefit downtown, in a way that businesses can use it to help expand and make downtown better.”
On Washington Street, though, the project moves on.
Bob Burry, a local architect and contractor in charge of the renovation at the old Chatham House, said that even though the process has stopped for a while, the renovation isn’t complete.
“It completely stopped because we were trying to decide exactly what to do with the space,” he said. “Lucy [Kerman, the owner and daughter of the late Dr. Charles Chatham] would like to do retail [antiques] on the first floor, and then upstairs we’re not sure,” Burry said. “The one thing we are sure about its that she wants to save it. It’s a challenge, it really is, but it’s saveable.
“I think it’s important for the community that it is saved. I don’t think we can handle losing another building downtown.”
Burry said he’s expecting to have the drawings submitted to the city soon.
“At that point we can get a permit and get started,” he said.
Although, he noted, a lot of work, much more than just cleaning up the debris, has been done already.
“We’ve gotten the structure stabilized, and the building is really in good shape considering what it’s gone through,” he said. “The fire stayed mainly in the roof, and not too much went down into the upstairs. I contribute that solely to the work of the firefighters. They really prevented it from spreading down the building.”
The next job, Burry said, will be working on the roof.
“I think we’ll probably be able to get started by February,” he said.
Learning and looking forward
Shelbyville Fire Chief Willard “Tiger” Tucker, whose crews were front and center for both fires, said he tries not to look back too much.
“I try to think more about the next one than the last one,” he said. “But those were pretty big jobs.”
But, he said, the work done by his department, Shelby County and the other volunteer fire departments in the county is a very positive sign.
“It validated a lot of the interdepartment training we do,” he said. “I know it was us and Shelby County working together on the fires, but other departments were plugging in to our stations and working with us. That’s very important for a seamless approach to covering the city and the county with fire protection.”
The Main Street fire, Tucker said, was probably the biggest he has faced in his 12 years as chief. And, he said, it was preparation that helped the most for that fire.
“From a firefighters’ standpoint, that was a pretty easy fire,” he said. “We couldn’t go in, so, from a safety point, it was easier. All we had to do was contain it.
“And it reinforced some of the thought processes we train with in regards to building construction. It helps when the structures can assist in the fight.”
He also said the city’s inspection process helped the department know where to fight the fire.
“Through our inspections, we were already somewhat familiar with the insides prior to the fire, so we knew what areas would need the most attention,” he said. “That helped us know what areas needed the most work and what areas would be safe for us to work.”
Which helped keep that hole on Main Street as small as possible.