Sunday, October 10, 1999

Fire destroys Florence businesses

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FLORENCE — The charred remains of a building that has anchored business on Main Street for decades smoldered in the spitting rain Saturday morning.

        Firefighters say a fire that started about 2:30 a.m. in the northwest corner of the building triggered an alarm. The first reports were of heavy, black smoke rolling out of the second floor and flames coming through the roof.

        “It's a total loss,” said Florence Fire Chief Tom Ollier. Investigators do not yet know how the fire started or whether it began on the first or second floor.

        They do not think the cause is suspicious.

        The building, owned by Ed Bessler since 1986, held the Garten Haus Restaurant, the Florence Barber Shop, a computer store and Bessler's Economy Market. There is an estimated $50,000 worth of damage in the grocery alone, not including the meat at the market. There were three steers in a large freezer there.

        “Whatever it takes to rebuild an 18,000-square-foot building is what the damages are,” Mr. Bessler said, adding that the insurance company is still calculating the costs.

        “I don't want to speculate. All I know is nothing is salvageable.”

        Mr. Bessler's son, who runs the market, said his family is overcome.

        “It's hard to put into words,” Randy Bessler said. “You look at it and it's devastating. We don't know what the next move is for sure.

        “It's going to depend on insurance and the availability of money to build.”

        The elder Mr. Bessler has owned a market in Covington since 1959.

        “I've worked there since I was 12,” Randy Bessler said.

        A meeting for Main Street

        business owners had been scheduled for Monday to talk about a grand opening for the revitalized area. The city has been working to repave the road and lay brick sidewalks to give the area an old-time feeling.

        “They told him they would be finished and out of his way by Monday,” said Florence Mayor Diane Ewing Whalen as she stood across the street looking through a thick, white smoke. “It's a loss to Main Street and the city. There's a lot of history.”

        The building held many memories for Florence residents. Built about 1920 by Charles Winfield Myers for his Ford dealership, it has housed many businesses, said Susan Cabot, Boone County's historic preservation planner.

        “From a historic preservation perspective, this is a devastating loss for Florence and Boone County,” she said. “The Myers building was one of the most significant historical commercial buildings in Boone County, and an architectural landmark for Main Street.”

        Ms. Cabot said the fire is a tremendous blow to the revitalization effort.

        “This type of community-oriented business is essential if Main Street is to become a viable pedestrian corridor,” she said.

        Steve Conrad, 57, of Florence, said he remembers when part of the upstairs was the Consolidated Telephone Co. office. In the spring of 1950, he and his third grade classmates took a tour. They watched as three women pushed and pulled wires in and out of the huge switchboard.

        “It's more nostalgic than anything else,” he said.

        Jim Peck, 77, has been a barber in the building since 1955.

        “I now only work about three days a week,” he said. “There are a lot of great memories there. I have so many people that have been with me over the years.”

        A few called him Saturday morning when they learned of the fire.

        “One guy called me this morning and said, "Where am I going to get my haircut?' I said, "Well, I don't really know.' It kind of disturbs me.

        “I'll just have to wait and see what happens.”

        A firefighter let Mr. Peck peek inside to see the damage. “The barber chair is still sitting there, but it has some smoke damage,” he said. “The fire never got to it.”


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