The vacant lot where the Brooks jewelry building once stood on the northeast corner of Sixth and Main streets is a scar on the landscape of downtown El Centro, but the cause of the fire that destroyed it is lapsing into a cold case.
Officials are saying little about the probe into the Feb. 11 blaze at 598 W. Main St. that displaced a number of merchants in Brooks and a neighboring structure. John Faubion, a city fire battalion chief, explained in an email the incident is still being viewed as arson.
"The case is still open and we are working with law enforcement," said Faubion. ""We are not releasing any other information at this time due to the sensitive nature of the case."
Meanwhile, the merchant neighbors of the Brooks building said they have absorbed the shock of the disaster and adapted well despite the hardship of being forced to relocate their businesses. Their businesses suffered water damage.
Lonnie Main, owner of the Gold & Diamond Exchange that was next door at 588 W. Main, has operated his business the last eight months out of a space in Simply@ Home, an antiques and collectibles shop, across the street at 569 W. Main.
Although rudimentary rehabilitation to the surrounding shops was begun last spring, the owner, Paul McManus, has decided to try to sell the properties rather than restore them, explained Main, who was managing the properties for McManus. It will be more economical to have a new owner build from the bottom up than try to remodel the properties, noted Main.
"I'd like to move some place where I could see the autumn colors but downtown El Centro is more economical for me to make a living," said Main. "If I can get the building I'm working on, I'll put up the financing and see how it works. But downtown is more economical than the I.V. Mall or along Imperial Avenue, where it's $25 a square foot versus $150 a square foot."
Main noted he spoke to Council Member Jason Jackson about getting neon lighting approved for downtown.
"I'd like to see them stick with the Art Deco style already here," he said. "If we could get new money and new blood to come to downtown we could revitalize it."
A new entertainment venue, TRUTH Nightclub at 601 W. Main, is an example of how downtown could become a rejuvenated neighborhood, Main added.
"Evidently, it's gotten real busy at night, but I'm no longer a clubber," he said. "But along with the Mason's building (Masonic Temple) renovation this could revitalize downtown. I'm hoping a Renaissance is beginning to take place here."
The owners of La Resaca restaurant now at Broadway and Imperial Avenue are renovating the Masonic building on the northeast corner of Sixth and State streets.
Attempts to contact Brooks property owner Larry Bratton were unsuccessful. Rick McManus, former El Centro resident, now living in San Diego, is a representative for his son, Paul McManus, who owns the neighboring properties at 588 and 584 W. Main.
"I think Larry lives in Texas with his son now," said Rick McManus in a phone conversation. "But the big story downtown is the Masonic building. I think they're sandblasting it now. It'll be a beautiful remodel. They'll have a steakhouse/bar, and an events center upstairs."
Carolyn Vigil, owner of the Chopping Block, a hair salon that was located just three doors east of the Brooks building also had to vacate her business because of water damage. But about six weeks after the disaster she relocated her business around the corner to 485 Broadway, suite A.
After renting space from two other salons, Vigil noted she is happy to have found a new business home. Although not as prominent as Main Street, Vigil has learned to love her new accommodation.
"It's not as many walk-ins because the bank (Union Bank) next door brought in a lot of clientele," she said. "But the new location is brighter, more sun. And there's lots of parking right in front of the shop. It's not good for a business to keep moving but most of our old customers now know where we are so, we're finally settled in."
Brooks, a 12,000 square foot building had stood since 1912. Bratton had owned it since 1976. Its outside walls were deemed unstable after the fire and it was condemned.
Wendy Luevano, owner of Simply @ Home, speculated the fire may have started because of a squatter.
"It was cold that night," she said. "A transient could have gotten in and things just got out of hand."