Livelihoods in limbo

Tourist season nears with future uncertain at Miners' Mercantile

Posted: Friday, April 27, 2007

The future of six businesses on Front Street are in limbo just nine days before cruise ships begin arriving and prime business season begins.

Their building, Miners' Mercantile Mall, was flagged with code violations and given a deadline of April 30 to remedy them or face closure.

"I am very hopeful that I will have enough time (to get the violations fixed). I would be lying to you if I didn't say I was scared," said building manager Steve Foster.

City officials say the building has been in violation of many codes, some for as long as nine years. Foster said he was dealing with the issues. He blamed the city in part for failing to follow up on inspections.

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"It's not like we were intentionally hiding it or keeping anything from them," he said. "It is just things that fell through the cracks."

Foster, who has managed the building for owners Deborah and Thomas Neubauer for the past six years, is worried about what will happen if the building is shut down.

"It would be devastating for the tenants. It would be devastating for the owner," Foster said. "Here we are facing the only real profitable time of year for many businesses downtown."

Six tenants occupy the building.

The most significant problems are in the basement, said Fire Marshall Rich Etheridge. It is used for storage, which is not permitted, he said, and has only one exit although it is required to have two.

"Most of the electric is just temporary wiring that was installed several years ago. There is potential for electrical fires," Etheridge said.

"(The building) is missing some exit signs and some of the lighting wasn't working," he said. "Our goal is to not shut the building down. That is the absolute last thing that we wanted to do."

Christy Baseden who owns Miner's Postal, couldn't help worrying, however.

"In the summertime I get a lot of cruise ship tourists and downtown gift shop business owners," she said. Her business is on the first level and is contracted with the U.S. Postal Service to sell postage.

"The city, I respect their position for safety, and if they feel that the building is unsafe," she said. "I would just like some time to move to get reestablished."

Carrie Baxter Graham, owner of Paradise Beach Tanning and Travel on the second level, said her customers have dwindled in the past week. She's concerned they are being scared away by the posted signs.

Others, like Mary Giuliani, owner of Juneau Crew Services, a business that caters to employees on cruise ships, said she recently arrived to discover the problem.

"This isn't what I should be spending my time doing," she said. If she has to relocate again, she could go out of business, she said. The business had to move after the Skinner building next door burned in August 2004.

"It is a lot of frustration," said Eddie Uddipa, owner of Eddie's Fast Food, which sells American, Oriental and Filipino dishes and is a popular spot for ship crews.

"I was shocked when the CBJ put up the violation," he said. "I was just crossing my fingers that the manager would fix it."

Foster said he was trying to get the work done.

"I am working very diligently to clean up that which I can," he said. "I have hired contractors to come in. I am sure that you know that trying to get reputable contractors in Juneau is hard."

He said some of the violations came to his attention within the past few months. Others, "they have been apparently on the books since '97, '98," he said. "In some cases, I am left cleaning up my own errors. In other cases, I am cleaning up others' errors."

Etheridge said the manager has had ample notice to fix the problems.

In March 2006, an engine crew completed an inspection of Miners' Mercantile and came up with a checklist of violations and a time frame to fix them.

"They attempted to follow up with them multiple times and couldn't get a response," Etheridge said.

Foster was cited last month for "unlawful continuation of a fire hazard," which can carry a fine of up to $300, Etheridge said.

Sara Boesser, chief building inspector for the city, said it is rare for a building to reach the point of having to be cited or threatened with closure.

Foster said most of the problems are small and estimated he needed just one month to bring the building up to code, barring any problems with contractors.

"It is not like there is anything truly wrong with that building," he said. "We've got one of the most modern, up-to-date buildings (in the historic district)."

The building is listed for sale by Juneau Real Estate for nearly $3 million.

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at brittany.retherford@juneauempire.com.



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