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Main Street businesses say they understand risk with old buildings

With three fires downtown in the last 10 years, Mitchell's Main Street has had its share of heartbreak. But ranging from business owners to city officials, most feel it still stands with each property owner to make sure the historic Main Street is safe.

"I don't think, as property owners, I don't think we can put all of the responsibility on the city," said Little Red Hen Owner Cathy Olson. "The fire department comes around and they do inspections. They give us ideas for what we can be doing, whether it's fire extinguishers or that type of thing. It's up to me as a property owner to maintain my building."

Mitchell Assistant Fire Chief Paul Morris said the city has increased its inspections in the area in recent years. The fire department particularly focuses on Main Street and one block in each direction as potential fire risks and has the area designated as a "high hazard area."

"We get down to every business on Main Street at least once per year," Morris said. "We're looking for things like blocked exits or extension cords that might be permanently used to provide electricity to something."

In recent years, the fire department has obtained floor plans for many of the buildings in that high risk area, so firefighters know where exits are before a fire occurs.

Morris believes a more regular presence of fire officials and the fires that have impacted buildings in downtown Mitchell have raised the awareness of the community regarding fires.

"The biggest thing is to get property owners to be thinking about their buildings and ways to make them safer," he said. "You don't really think about it until it's personal."

Since the 2004 State Theatre fire (10 years ago this week), there have been two more downtown fires: the Janitor's Express building at 200 N. Main in December 2007 and the Cactus Bar and Casino at 102 N. Main in June 2008. All three were on the National Register of Historic Places as part of Mitchell's Historic Commercial District listing. In total, there have been 12 fires in downtown Mitchell in the city's history, according to local historian Lyle Swenson.

"We've had some drastic fires downtown over the years. But there's no such thing as a fireproof building," Swenson said.

Brenda Olesen owns Einstein's Costume and Prop Rental, which suffered some damage in 2004 due to its location next to the State Theatre building. She said the cost of upgrades to buildings are probably the biggest deterrent for most owners.

"When it costs $30,000 for a new roof, $50,000 for a heating system, you can put that up against how many costumes you need to sell and you can get an idea of how your year is going to go," she said.

That said, she's not considering leaving her building, built in 1907, which she said was built to last.

"I think I have one of the nicest buildings on Main Street," Olesen said. "I wouldn't even think about anywhere else. This building works well for what we do. I've been invited to go other places. But I'm not going to. I prefer this one."

Lori Holmberg is a member of the Mitchell Historic Preservation Commission, which is a city committee that signs off on changes to the historic buildings in Mitchell. She said there's nothing exciting about fixing up the wiring of a building, but it's critical.

"You really need to focus on the guts and bones of the building," Holmberg said. "Because if you don't have that, you don't end up having anything."

"People notice when there's buildings missing or if there's a hole that stands out," she said. "And it becomes apparent that buildings need to be maintained."

Mitchell Main Street and Beyond Director Molly Goldsmith said her organization has available revolving loan funds for fire safety projects, ranging from sprinkler systems to electrical upgrades. The maximum loan amount is $400 for every foot of storefront. To date, the group has not loaned out any money for a fire-related project, but she said buildings with a kitchen or related equipment on Main Street already have sprinkler systems in place.

In his time on the Mitchell City Council, Ken Tracy believed the city's role in helping with upgrades on private property should be limited. He said this week the city will continue trying to do its part with streetscape and plaza projects along Main Street. That project would stretch from First Avenue to Sixth Avenue with curb extensions and landscaping. The $5.8 million project does not have a timeline and remains without funding sources.

Olesen said Main Street looks better than it did 15 to 20 years ago. The age of her building is not a concern to her.

"Tomorrow, the buildings will be older than they are today. So will I," she said. "But should I throw in the towel and say 'I give up' or should I care? And I care."