City wrestles with fire-damaged building; inspector says ‘stay away’

VICKSBURG — Five months after fire destroyed it the building that housed El Rio Mexican restaurant remains untouched despite an order from the city to tear it down.

And city officials are hoping someone will buy the property and hire a private crew to tear down the remains of the gutted building.

“I’m advising the city to stay away from demolishing the remains of that building,” building and inspection director Victor Gray-Lewis said.

He said having city crews remove the building’s remains could put the city in a precarious legal position because the building shared walls with adjacent businesses on either side.

A March 15 fire gutted the building, which housed the restaurant and two upstairs apartments, and damaged the adjacent buildings on the left and right.

The Board of Mayor and Aldermen on June 25 gave then-property owner Ozelle Courtney a 30-day extension to begin fixing or demolish the building.

The extension has since expired, and VRM Commercial Services of Carrollton, Texas, has acquired the building, which is up for sale, through foreclosure. Attempts to contact VRM were unsuccessful.

“I hope someone buys the property,” Gray-Lewis said. “That building needs to be demolished by hand and piece by piece. It really needs to be done by a private contractor.”

“I’m afraid if the city tries to tear it down, it could face another situation like the old furniture building on Clay Street,” he said, referring to the controversy over the demolition of the 140-year-old Thomas Furniture Store, which collapsed in 2006.

The city became embroiled in a lawsuit in county court when Lisa and Randy Ashcraft, who own the building west of the Thomas Furniture site and shared a wall with the collapsed building, sued the city, the building’s owners and the contractor they hired to complete the city-ordered demolition.

The Ashcrafts claimed the demolition posed a potential threat to the wall their building shared with the remnants of the furniture store. The Ashcrafts sued the city, Preston and Mary Reuther, the owners of the property where the furniture store stood, and the contractor the Reuthers hired to remove the debris.

The suit led to a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city that was later filed by the Ashcrafts in U.S. District Court in Jackson. The suit was dismissed in July. The Ashcrafts are appealing the dismissal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The furniture store property is now owned by American Corporate Investment Group LLC, a landowning group managed by the Ashcrafts.

The property is one of three vacant buildings the city is dealing with. Two of those properties may soon be sold.

Gray-Lewis said the vacant South and Crawford Street Apartments could be under new owners sometime in September.

“There is a serious potential buyer for Crawford Street and South Street,” he said. “I’m hoping to have some good news early next week.”

News of the potential sales comes about five months after Gray-Lewis notified Hudson Advisors, which holds the mortgage on both apartment complexes, that the city was enforcing its slum ordinance, which allows the city to take and raze the buildings if action isn’t taken by the property owner to repair or raze the structures.

The city granted Hudson two 60-day extensions to reach a solution concerning the buildings.

The 48-year-old apartment complexes have been a problem for city officials for at least 11 years. The city in 2011 condemned the Crawford Street Apartments and in 2012 condemned 40 percent of the South Street Apartments, also known as the Triple Six Apartments.

The complexes have managed to avoid demolition several times in the past because representatives for Hudson Advisors, which holds the mortgage on both apartment buildings, said they had a prospective buyer, but no buyer ever materialized.

 

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