In the summer of 2008, a block at the center of Springfield was totally destroyed by fire. The blaze was set by an arsonist. Over 40 people were temporarily homeless and the fire leveled a movie theater and a few other businesses.
But today, the Ellis Block has been totally re-built.
On the night of July 9, 2008, Daryl and Herb Wisch were at home when a frantic tenant called them to say that their building was on fire. As landlords in a building where people rent out rooms, Daryl says they weren’t overly concerned at first—there had been smaller fires in the rooming house and they had just installed a new alarm system that automatically summoned the fire department. They rushed to the scene to find fire trucks and a crowd on the street in front of the blazing structure, which also housed a movie theater.
“I mean, it clearly wasn’t a mattress on fire, it was clearly coming down and you began to see the flames coming out of the windows and through the roof. Thank God nobody was hurt, one fireman wrenched his back. That was the worst of the problem,” she said.
But other sorts of problems did arise when the smoke cleared, not just for the Wisches, but for their uninsured renters, for an adjacent property owner, and for the community at large.
The Wisches say they got a generous insurance settlement, but not big enough to replace the building while meeting the more stringent codes that apply to new construction. So after a few months of deliberation they sold it to the town of Springfield for a dollar, and Springfield Housing and Housing Vermont teamed up to redevelop the property.
Bill Morlock directs Springfield Housing, and he says investing millions of state and federal grant money into nine new apartments and a posh movie theater was, in retrospect, a big gamble.
“There were people that were worried that, you know, if we got in this particular venture the movie theater might not go and we said well, we thought it was important for the downtown to have some kind of economic catalyst to bring more businesses down town. So we were willing to take the chance on this. I think we are going to hopefully be proved right that it’s doing well enough that it has helped downtown,” Morlock said.
Morlock says it’s too early to say whether the rebuilt block has spurred economic growth, but at least, he says, the housing and movie theater are breaking even, and he loves to show it off.
The theater’s next door neighbor, property owner B. J. Crowley, says Springfield Housing did a great job on the rehab, but it wasn’t easy for him, as a private developer, to find the money to rebuild his retail and residential property next door, which was also badly damaged in the fire.
Lunching in a Main Street restaurant, Crowley said he’s not sure it made sense to invest public dollars into the Ellis Block.
“No, I was not a proponent of it,” he recalled.
“I thought it should probably have been torn down. That was, you know, three million dollars that went into that building…when you are sitting next door as a private citizen and seeing what they gain and we don’t, it just doesn’t seem like a fair playing field.”
And Crowley said the Ellis Block, however attractive, cannot be a magic bullet for a downtown that’s seen better times.
“Springfield needs a whole lot of help—industry—more than residential units and a movie theater, so, it’s not like it’s going to bring back an entire community that’s lost,” he said.
Crowley also doubts the need for a new rental registry ordinance that requires all rental properties to be registered and inspected at the property owner’s expense.
Supporters say it will make public buildings safer and more fireproof. But Crowley says it’s burdensome and unnecessary, since his buildings already get inspected by the state and local authorities.
The inspection arm of the registry ordinance is also a thorn in the side of Bill Morlock, of Springfield Housing.
“If the state is going to be responsible anyway a town ordinance is not going to make them come in. You can’t make the state do something they don’t have the manpower to do. The Fire Chief can go into any of these buildings right now—you don’t need a town ordinance for that,” Morlock said.
A vote to repeal the ordinance will be held on August 20.