Businesses rise from ashes of 2004 blaze

Owner of Skinner Building won't divulge plans for the site

Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Nine months after their livelihoods went up in smoke, some of the former tenants of Juneau's burned-down Skinner Building are back in business.

Five days after the Aug. 15 fire, Bernadine Peterson and Brian Lupro celebrated their business's eighth anniversary with their life savings in ashes.

They had received a call at home the day of the fire. When they arrived at the scene, flames already curled from the roof of their second-floor business, Nail Jazz. They watched the fire consume the 108-year-old building until firefighters started evacuating downtown Juneau.

Now the couple operates its pedicure and manicure business in a salon in the Gastineau Apartments building. Their old sign, salvaged from the Skinner Building's demolition, adorns the entrance.

"We love the new place," Bernadine said. "It has a New York style. As my sister said, the decoration is seriously sophisticated."

The site at the intersection of Front and Seward streets is a huge dirt hole, a gaping monument to the disaster started accidentally by two roofing workers and a torch.

The fire pushed out 17 commercial tenants. Many of them have risen from the ruins and re-established their businesses. Others are struggling with insurance companies while trying to get by.

Trish Austin, who was co-owner of the burned-out Corner Teriyaki, operates a hot dog stand on a platform on the side of the vacant lot. The building's owner, Tom Huntington, put up the platform for her.

"I was shivering the first day I came back," Austin said. "We are at the same spot where my kitchen was."

Austin acts as a guide to the ruins. Cruise ship crew members and tourists often stop to ask her what happened.

Huntington refused to comment about whether he has any plan for the site. Right now, crew members from the Seward Street reconstruction project park their trucks and excavators at the lot.

Austin said she has looked for a new place downtown, but most locations are too expensive.

"I am hoping the owner will rebuild it," she said.

Some former tenants prefer downtown because it gets more foot traffic than other parts of Juneau. Subway is moving into a space at the intersection of Second and Seward streets. Nail Jazz kept its operation downtown because that's where it established its client base, Peterson said.

But some businesses are moving away.

Peter Lam, owner of the Chinese restaurant Dragon Inn, will reopen his business at the former Chinese Palace, across from Western Auto in the Lemon Creek area. He bought the property in April.

Lam said he likes the new location because the restaurant will have plenty of parking. Lam, who opened Dragon Inn five years ago, estimated his financial loss at $270,000. His insurance company covered $100,000.

Before the fire destroyed the building, Lam was ready to expand Dragon Inn with more seats and more items on the menu. He said the financial loss was tough, but not working was unbearable.

"I was used to working seven days a week," Lam said.

Now he's back to work full-time. He works with a group of carpenters he hired to remodel the Chinese Palace. He expects to open any day.

Many business owners said they appreciate the locals' unwavering support. Austin said her best customers are locals.

"They told other people that Trish is back," she said.

When Lupro got a haircut at Franklin Street Barbers after the fire, the owner gave him a free haircut and handed him a check for $200. Many of his former customers get pedicures and manicures at their new salon on Franklin Street.

Lupro said that when he salvaged the old Nail Jazz sign from the Skinner Building's burned skeleton he held it up and said to all the bystanders, "We will be back."

"I walked by all the people," Lupro said. "Everyone clapped."

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