Fire means ‘transition’ downtown

It has been four months since a fire swept through a part of downtown North Vernon, destroying businesses, apartments and leaving some families homeless.

Today, the remains of the Nov. 21 fire that left the historic district with a strip of charred and hollowed-out buildings can be clearly seen by motorists traveling through the area.

Mayor Harold “Soup” Campbell said the city, however, is working to acquire those properties so the buildings can be demolished and the area can be converted to green space.

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Then, when Campbell is replaced by a new mayor come Jan. 1, 2016, he’s hoping that person will focus on turning the block into senior housing and parking.

“It looks like it’s going in a good direction,” said Campbell, who took office in 2008 and is wrapping up a second term. He has said he has no plans to run for re-election.

The fire, reported at 4:48 a.m. Nov. 21, engulfed Hatton’s Carpet and Flooring Store at 24 Fifth St. That building, which also housed apartments, collapsed along with an adjacent building. Other buildings along the historic strip were left heavily damaged despite the work of multiple fire departments extinguishing the flames. It was bitterly cold the day of the fire.

A large fence was put up to enclose the area because of the instability of the buildings.

The fire, which had multiple points of origin in a basement apartment, was ruled arson, and no arrests have been made, North Vernon Fire Chief Rick McGill said.

McGill said police have “persons of interest” in the case.

“It is still an open inv-estigation and (it) will continue until something comes to fruition about that,” he said. “Getting some of them located to be able to talk to them has turned out to be a challenge.”

From a community standpoint, McGill said the aftermath has been devastating, especially for the older residents.

“They remember the downtown area as being a vibrant business community, and then to see that — coming into town and it’s the first thing you see,” he said, referring to the damaged buildings. “It draws your attention.”

Campbell said before the fire, the block was an active area with rental apartment and businesses, including the carpet store, a beauty parlor and a barbershop.

The section of town also was in the midst of undergoing renovations through a project financed by a state and local grant.

“There was some longer-term damage than just that fire. It took people out, and some had to search for a place to reopen their stores,” Campbell said.

Campbell said looking toward the future, the city has hired Harmon Construction Inc. of North Vernon as the site manager for the project. The city also is waiting for commercial appraisals to be completed. Those are expected soon, he said.

In total, Campbell said about nine fire-damaged buildings will need to be demolished. On the north end of Fifth Street, however, some apartments and a law office were able to be salvaged and are in the process of being rebuilt or cleaned up.

Five years from now, Campbell said he foresees new buildings in place that stand two to three stories and reflect the surrounding neighborhoods.

Instead of adding more stores and risking the possibility of empty buildings, he said senior housing units and parking would offer a place for older, retired residents to live with easy access to shops, restaurants, the license branch and a gym.

“Let this be a transition from the old to the new,” Campbell said.

McGill said he has heard folks tell him the area won’t ever be the same after the fire. But with the city’s plans and with the community’s support, he has a different outlook.

“No, it won’t be the same, but hopefully, it will be something that people will take pride in again,” he said.