A grill rises from the ashes

Businesswoman exemplifies entrepreneurship in the face of adversity

Posted: Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Juneau residents who were here two years ago may remember how hot the summer was, with numerous long sunny days and gentle breezy evenings. We should be so lucky to have a little of that this year.

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One feature of the summer of 2004 that I pray we don't see again is the catastrophic fire that created the large hole that now lies in the heart of downtown at the corner of Front and Seward streets. I was in Anchorage when it happened, but I remember being struck upon my return how significantly the cityscape had been altered. The building burned down while it was undergoing some external reconstruction, and the loss is felt to this day. We're not used to having undeveloped parcels of property in the midst of our fair town.

One thing I wondered back then, and still ponder, is how the wonderful reconstruction of Seward Street could have proceeded without the staging space that occupied the empty lot. The new, wider sidewalks, the cobbled crossings, and the plant and streetlight fixtures are all great additions to downtown's ambiance. But still, the loss of a large business-filled structure is impossible to ignore. As reconstruction of the northern part of Seward Street nears completion, it bears remembering how much chaos accompanied the first phase of the project.

I lived on South Franklin Street two years ago and relished the tasty treats I'd carry home from the Dragon Inn (whose owners have successfully reopened in Lemon Creek, where the Singapore noodles are every bit as good as before). Other businesses have failed to re-emerge.

One recent re-addition to the downtown restaurant community is the small red structure housing the Mesa Grill. Trish Austin is the hard working businesswoman who made this happen. A 15-year Juneau resident, she ran an increasingly successful hamburger and hot dog stand in front of the Marine View Center for many years, and finally was able to open the Corner at the junction of Front and Seward streets. Anyone who knows our weather patterns can see why it was a delight to be able to move inside and serve diners. She had a growing clientele.

Subway was Trish's intimate neighbor in the corner space, and has also done an outstanding job of getting itself up and running again - just up Seward at the corner of Second Street. But Trish found a different way of getting on with life. She worked with the owner of the burnt-down building, and literally built herself a platform on which to operate. She is now the only business on the fire site, and she had to have the courage to re-invest all the insurance proceeds from the fire in a whole new business. She went to Costco and got a new grill, acquired all the necessary ingredients, ran countless other errands, and there she is - with teriyaki chicken on the grill for you. Trish is a great example of tenacity in the face of adversity.

Fires can do so much tragic damage, and in our safe and secure way of thinking about life, it's hard to be ready for setbacks of this enormity. The recent fire at Holy Trinity Church more than proves this point (but the community's response in helping the much-loved Theatre in the Rough proved that we can pull together). It is truly gratifying knowing that the people of Juneau can face such challenges and help each other.

I understand that the owner of the empty lot downtown is still figuring out what to do with the land. I imagine that affairs pertaining to the fire are not yet settled. But I applaud him for working to make a former tenant into his first new one. And I really tip my hat to Trish for exemplifying the spirit of entrepreneurship that underlies all successful businesses, and helping me feel that Juneau is alive and well.

• Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan, an actor, attorney and bartender.



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