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Village's visage changing after fire

The John's Pass building that was destroyed will be replaced. But there will be shops only on the second floor because of flood rules.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2000


MADEIRA BEACH -- One month after fire destroyed 11 businesses at John's Pass Village, the Sheriff's Office hasn't found the arsonist it has been seeking, and most shop owners haven't yet collected payments from their insurance companies.

But one striking decision has been made that will alter the face of the old village already poised to undergo a city-funded redevelopment. The building built to replace the one burned to the ground will have stores on the second floor only, and that floor will be accessible by elevators.

"It's going to change the look of the village," said Jack Tipton, the county's assistant building director, who handles building issues for Madeira Beach. "You're going to have this new store in the middle of the old ones, but it has to look like the old ones."

Because the building was destroyed, any rebuilt version would have to adhere to Federal Emergency Management Agency and Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. Those rules mandate certain elevation and handicapped accessibility standards.

The ruling should please existing second-level businesses, who sometimes complain that some tourists are physically unable to climb stairs to reach them.

Besides the decision from the county, little has changed for John's Pass Village in the past month.

The charred building scraps have been hauled away, leaving a fire-gutted hole that divides a building that used to be one long strip. Store owners are still out of business, though a couple have reopened to sell their smoke- and water-damaged goods at severely discounted prices.

The city is moving forward with its plans for a $1.2-million John's Pass Village redevelopment. The structure's owner hopes to rebuild within the next few months, but county officials, who oversee development in Madeira Beach, say the new building might house half as many tenants as the one that burned to the ground.

Meanwhile, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is still working on its arson investigation.

"I've not ruled anyone or anything out yet," Detective Ken Luth said. "When you're dealing with 15 different businesses with 15 or 20 different owners, and take that down to the 100 or so employees or 100 or so ex-employees, not to mention all the people living in the area, including juveniles, you've got a lot to look at."

The Sheriff's Office announced this week that a $12,500 reward is available for anyone who helps the agency locate the arsonist. The fire was reported at about 2:17 a.m. Feb. 14 by a cab driver who noticed the flames while working a late shift.

The fire was started in a trash can in front of the building, but a strong northern wind helped fan the flames.

Luth said he hopes the arsonist -- he, she or they -- bragged to friends about the incident. Those friends might be eager to collect the reward money, supplied by the Florida Advisory Committee on Arson Prevention and two private insurance companies that lost money in the blaze.

"I was kind of glad to see that reward go out because that's going to, I think, improve the chances that we catch the individual who did that," Madeira Beach Mayor Tom De Cesare said.

While the investigation continues and building owner Paul Straubinger works out how the structure can be rebuilt, at least one thing at John's Pass Village is moving forward as planned: the redevelopment project.

Work on that project, which involves streetscaping and placing utilities underground and other amenities designed to make the village more attractive, is still scheduled to begin May 1.

The Madeira Beach City Commission was expected to hire a landscaper for the project Tuesday night, as well as agree to pay Florida Power Corp. to put the utilities underground at the village.

Altogether, the renovations planned for John's Pass Village will cost an estimated $1.2-million. "We're landscaping out the kazoo," said Mike Maxemow, the community services director for Madeira Beach.

The city has also given store owners some flexibility because of the fire's effects. Last year the City Commission restricted sidewalk sales, arguing that they gave the village a look like a flea market. They allowed sales on the sidewalk for a week not long after the fire.

"That was just for one week, and now the ordinance is still in effect," said Maxemow, who believes the village looks more upscale when vendors sell their wares inside only. "They worked so hard to clean up the village itself. Just the aesthetics alone of stuff hanging over the railings and on doors has changed the overall picture of it."

Gary Chitwood, who owns Alligator Alley and a fudge shop that were mostly destroyed in the fire, said those outdoor sales help the businesses. His shop is only partly open now, and he is selling damaged goods at cut-rate prices.

Now that a month has passed since the fire, village vendors are increasingly baffled at the lack of new information about the arson investigation.

"I can't imagine who would have done it," Chitwood said.

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