After the smoke clears

Since a fire allegedly lit by a mentally unstable homeless man in March torched part of a storefront and staircase in Ashland's downtown Plaza, the cost of extensive building repairs and lost business has topped $900,000, owners estimate.

A new souvenir, trinket and specialty items shop could sprout from the ashes as soon as the end of this week, but some of the establishments affected by mostly smoke damage still are weathering the repair process, building owner Sam Wong said.

Hana Sushi owner Bill Barchet, who initially hoped to reopen his restaurant in June, now expects to be ready for customers in three weeks as the ceiling, floor and walls still are being repaired.

Including lost business, the fire has eaten up $250,000, Barchet said, most of which insurance will cover.

Barchet will have to hire about four employees once business gets going, he said.

"There are a few we've been paying to keep around, but not to the extent they would get," he said. "We're very gracious for all the community support since the fire. ... Every day, almost, I get people coming up and asking when we're going to open."

Barchet said the restaurant will open with a few upgrades to its interior design.

Wong said the cost of a new ventilation system, internal building repairs, a new fire sprinkler system and costs associated with rubbing out smoke damage throughout the two-story structure have topped $380,000 on his end, most of which insurance will cover.

Petaluma-based Crackerjax could open this week where American Trails used to be, Wong said. The space was vacant during the fire, but nearest to where it burned most intensely.

Two apartments upstairs in the building and the Ashland Painters Union are waiting for final touch-up work to be done by Medford-based Batzer Construction, which also is completing work in the building's staircase where the fire was lit.

"It's coming along good," Wong said. "Just a few more things to do."

Batzer worker Paul Chitwood was sprucing up the building Wednesday with a little housework — vacuuming dust bunnies, sweeping and cleaning windows.

Hong Kong Bar in the adjacent building remains closed awaiting final repairs being made to the staircase, which serves as its fire exit.

Gold & Gems Jewelry reopened in June after an overhaul of nearly the entire store. Its space suffered heavy smoke damage from the fire.

New carpet, freshly painted walls, polished jewelry and a detailed scrubbing of the furniture have knocked down the once overbearing smell of smoke "for the most part," owner Ron Hansen said.

In May, Hansen estimated that the cost of repairing the store and lost business was $300,000.

Raymond Lee Wilson, a 37-year-old homeless man, has been charged with starting the fire, which was spotted by an Ashland police officer shortly before 3 a.m. March 19. Wilson also is accused of tossing rocks through the windows of two other businesses, stealing from one, and vandalizing a vehicle that same night.

Police said they believe Wilson dragged at least one trash can off the sidewalk and lit it on fire inside the stairwell, which caused the blaze.

Wilson faces 24 charges, including five counts of first-degree arson; one count each of second-degree criminal mischief, burglary and theft; three counts of reckless endangering; 10 counts of first-degree criminal mischief and menacing; two counts of third-degree criminal mischief; and a first-degree menacing charge.

Wilson pleaded not guilty to all charges in Jackson County Circuit Court, but his trial date has not been set. He is under psychiatric analysis at a state hospital, records show.

"Obviously, Mr. Wilson has serious mental health issues," said Jackson County prosecutor Adam Peterson during Wilson's arraignment hearing on March 22.

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