Business owners seek assurances Port will rebuild, leases will be renewed

Boats and blue water bob in the background of the charred remains of the Friday Harbor waterfront building destroyed by fire Saturday, Aug. 17.  - Contributed photo/Carole Sue Conran
Boats and blue water bob in the background of the charred remains of the Friday Harbor waterfront building destroyed by fire Saturday, Aug. 17.
— image credit: Contributed photo/Carole Sue Conran

Business owners ousted from the now-charred waterfront building that housed Downriggers restaurant asked for assurances at a special meeting of the Friday Harbor Port Commission that they will be permitted to reopen in the same location, whether in a rebuilt or completely new building.

Debbie Rishel, owner of Downriggers, and her longtime manager Mary Ann Ragsdale were both direct. Rishel said she thought the commissioners should say now that Downriggers can reopen, while Ragsdale reminded them and Port Director Marilyn O'Connor what Downriggers means to Friday Harbor and how much it has done for the community.

A dozen frequent customers voiced support for Rishel, one of them saying he hoped Downriggers could reopen before his mother's 93rd birthday dinner, "next April."

The crowd murmured and nodded agreement with one speaker who said, "We don't want Anthony's in Friday Harbor."

Four businesses were displaced after fire swept through Downriggers restaurant in the early morning hours of Aug. 17, leaving a summertime crew of roughly 50 restaurant workers without a job, and three businesses based on the ground floor of the port-owned building, Friday Harbor Marine, San Juan Excursions and San Juan Safaris, without a home.

Albert Hall reminded the crowd that the bulkhead along the whole waterfront was failing and probably in violation of Shoreline Management Act rules. The Port is already in the early planning stages for rebuilding the bulkhead and putting a boardwalk along the waterside.

Both the bulkhead and the possibility of oil contamination in the area from former storages tanks will have to be addressed before construction permits can be issued.

Port commissioners Barbara Marrett and Mike Arhenius were sympathetic but non-committal in their responses to the business owners and an overflow crowd of about 100 people that packed San Juan Island Yacht Club on Wednesday, Aug. 21.

"We're doing everything we can to help the businesses, but it's just too soon to say what we'll do or when it will be done," Ahrenius said. "We know how important the location is to the town and to all of you here and we will move on this as fast as possible."

Marrett was even more forthcoming. "I have a definite bias in your favor," she said. "My heart is with you. The port's policy favors local businesses and local people."

Friday Harbor Town Administrator Duncan Wilson assured everyone that the town would continue doing "everything possible" to expedite studies and permits necessary begin rebuilding, but urged that business owners and citizens "be patient" so that the complex task could be completed "in the right way."

"The town will not be an impediment to getting things done, but we have to follow the law," he said.

Wilson confirmed that the state Department of Ecology would have to be satisfied that the site was compliant with shoreline development rules before building permits could be issued.

After the meeting, some of the departing crowd walked in front of the burned-out restaurant, where five fire forensic investigators and engineers, their faces shielded by double-sided filter masks, were engaged in what one of them termed "a layer-by-layer archaeological dig" in accordance with NFPA 921, the forensic fire investigator's "bible".

By Friday noon, investigators had finished their work, characterized as a "normal investigation" with "no surprises" by several people familiar with the investigation. These sources, who were not investigators, independently confirmed that a preliminary report was expected to be released on Monday.

The most sobering conclusion was offered by Mike Close, owner of Friday Harbor Marine, as he left the room. Close said that he of course wants to get back into full operation as soon as possible, "but, realistically, were talking about a two-year timetable."


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