Community

Vinton gets back to business after devastating fire leaves 'a big hole in the downtown'

One of four century-old burned buildings has a chance to be saved

Charred walls and ruins from an early February fire that destroyed buildings and forced the relocation of several downtown Vinton businesses is seen May 1 with the Benton County Courthouse in the background. The fire occurred Feb. 8. An investigation was not able to determine the cause. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Charred walls and ruins from an early February fire that destroyed buildings and forced the relocation of several downtown Vinton businesses is seen May 1 with the Benton County Courthouse in the background. The fire occurred Feb. 8. An investigation was not able to determine the cause. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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VINTON — Four downtown businesses displaced by a raging fire in February have all reopened in nearby locations, but it could be years before the downtown or the businesses recover fully.

The fire torched years of history while blazing through a tight row of brick-sided buildings built between 1875 and 1903. It’s hard to miss the damage that remains on E. Fourth Street in the heart of Vinton across from the Benton County Courthouse.

“I always thought that block was the showcase of town,” said Jon Clingman, co-owner of Clingman Pharmacy, which lost its building at 106 E. Fourth St.

The buildings housing Clingman and Michael & Dowd Furniture and Appliance have been demolished. A third, which housed the Fischer Law Firm, is expected to be razed. But a fourth, which housed Benton County Title Co., is expected to be saved.

“People walk by that area and remember what it used to be like and it is felt,” Clingman said. “It’s as if there’s a big hole in the downtown.”

The fire burned for three days, starting in Michael & Dowd and spreading to Clingman and the Fisher building, aided by wind gusts. Benton County Title mainly suffered smoke and water damage.

While three insurance companies conducted a joint investigation, no cause was ever determined, Fire Chief Charlie Garwood said.

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“The damage was so severe, they couldn’t tell,” he said. “They knew where it started, but we don’t know the cause.”

Business owners are curious about what happened, but suspect they will never know. They aren’t dwelling on it too much, though, as they focus on moving forward. They are each at different stages.

City Administrator Chris Ward credited the business for coming back.

“The business owners do want to keep their businesses going and keep them here,” he said. “I don’t hear anyone saying, ‘I want to pack up and leave,’ because this is home.”

The Clingman site has been excavated and Clingman wants to rebuild, but the owners have yet to settle on plans. It could be a couple of years before the pharmacy can move back, he said.

A competing pharmacy, LaGrange, which also is located on Fourth, took in Clingman’s for about three weeks following the fire to help. But Clingman is filling prescriptions from its own location now on the southwest corner of Fourth and First, a few storefronts down from its old spot.

The space is about a quarter the size of the old building, so the business stripped down its offerings, which used to include consignment goods, to bare bones pharmacy services.

“We are trying to bring some personality into this, but it’s hard,” he said, lamenting the loss of the historic features of his old building,

Owners of Michael & Dowd have been most aggressive in rebuilding. The old building is gone, and a foundation already has been poured for its replacement in hopes of opening by the holidays.

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The store has a temporary location a block west on Fourth Street. In the new location, the owners are able to display arms chairs, couches, washers and dryers and stoves, although the shotgun-style footprint is too small for everything.

Third-generation owner Lisa Vogt, who co-owns the business with her husband, Mark, said through phone orders and a focus on installation work, they were able to pay the small staff of employees throughout the ordeal.

“We are just so grateful for what we have in our community,” she said. “We are so blessed to have our fire department, police, city council, hospital. It’s overwhelming and humbling to hear how much you’ve meant to people and their lives. That’s what I love abut living in a small community.”

Scars from the fire still are evident at the Fischer building where Robert Fischer operated his law practice. The second story is hollowed out and the roof is gone.

Fischer reopened within a few days a few doors to the west on the same block, which was important given that it was tax season.

Thirty years of wet, moldy client files sit ruined in the basement and need to be cleared out. He wants to get going with rebuilding as quickly as he can, he said.

“I learned the community is very supportive. I also learned I need to plan ahead better,” he said of protecting his files.

Vinton County Title reopened adjacent to its old neighbor — Fischer — while missing only a couple days of work.

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Dan McCann, a vice president for the business, said it didn’t lose much but can’t get back in the building until work occurs on the Fischer building.

City administrator Ward said the city has tried to assist the businesses, such as waiving the building permit process and fees for rebuilding, working with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to remove rubble and deal with asbestos, and has committed $100,000 as a local match for a $100,000 Iowa Department of Economic Development community catalyst building remediation grant.

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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