Two days before Christmas, at the height of what St. Johnsbury merchants say was one of the best shopping seasons in recent years, fire broke out in an historic brick building on Railroad Street.
The damage was severe, but the owner says he wants to re-build. So workers on a crane are already removing dangling debris.
Scott Beck is executive director of the Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Boxcar and Caboose. His bookstore is located in a neighboring building that had to be rebuilt after a fire in 2000. So he knows how much work will have to go into just stabilizing the building that burned last month.
"The third floor is mostly gone, part of the roof is gone and part of the façade. So they’ve got their work ahead of them, for sure," he said as he watched the workers.
By "they," Beck means the owner, Bruno Ravel. On the ground floor was a drugstore his parents ran for many decades. They died a few years ago.
Ravel is still too distraught about the fire to talk with reporters. But he has been talking with historic preservationists, real estate developers, and Chamber of Commerce Director Beck about how to re-build -even though he did not have insurance.
Beck looks says the local economy is on an upswing, and this tragedy could lead to a happy ending.
"Downtown in the railroad district we’re at a hundred per cent occupancy down here. And so to put another building in with nice spaces is another opportunity for us,"he said.
But seizing that opportunity may not be easy. One preservationist estimates the building will cost a million dollars to re-build. Still, Beck says Ravel, who is well-liked in the community, has told him that he loves this town, and is determined to clean up and restore the building while maintaining its historic character.
That’s good news to Delsie Hoyt, director of the Northeast Kingdom Artisans Guild. Standing beside the burned out building, it suffered minor damage in the December fire. Hoyt says when the fire trucks arrived in mid-afternoon, fellow merchants and passers-by helped save some of the merchandise.
"It was epic involvement of people on the street helping ferry sensitive items of the store to a safe location down the street," Hoyt recalled.
The Guild expects to re-open in a week or two, but two other small businesses are changing hands, or re-locating.
Fire has been an all-too-frequent occurrence in this Northeast Kingdom town. In 2000, 2003, and again in 2008, major chunks of the downtown were destroyed by flames. Some have been rebuilt but there are still vacant lots where other buildings once stood.
St. Johnsbury Fire Chief Troy Ruggles says all these fires have broken out in old buildings. While he is grateful to political leaders for securing some financing for reconstruction, he wants to see more emphasis on helping property owners install smoke and heat detectors and sprinklers.
"So we never have to deal with this again, so we never have to worry about the loss of life of civilians living in these buildings, the loss of firefighters operating in these buildings, and generally we can be one step ahead of the fire so that if it does occur we have the detection and suppression to stop it," Ruggles said.
Ruggles says Ravel’s building had smoke detectors, but not sprinklers, and like many older buildings across Vermont, the walls and wiring allowed the flames to spread quickly.