Our Fire

Headline: “Historic Fordney now rubble”

Friday, June 28, 1991, The Saginaw News

The photo (above) shows the rear view of the fire which destroyed a major part of the historic district of Saginaw. We owned the part that is shown fully involved in flames. The one-story white building behind the main structure was also ours.

We’d purchased the building shortly after John retired in 1988. The building contained eight apartments on the second floor and two long-term businesses on the first floor. The third and fourth floors were occupied by a vacant ballroom with a balcony.

We had obtained a historic grant and had spent approximately $45,000 to renovate the builidng. John had done most of the work himself. It was up to current code and the old place had a “new lease on life.” He had put the final coat of paint on the doors of one of the shops the previous weekend. Everything was new: furnaces, plumbing, kitchens, bathrooms. We looked forward to steady long-term income.

We’d feared the proximity to the Fordney Hotel (which was located next door). John had witnessed derelicts entering the Forney which had been condemned for about two years. The authorities had been notified over and over. Everyone ignored John’s concerns. The fire was almost pre-destined. We knew that the homeless folks who lived in the condemned building were “cooking” and smoking. It was a problem waiting to errupt.

When the fire broke out, John’s first concern was getting all of the residents out. There was no time for “packing”; the fire moved fast. The fire department fought to save nearby businesses, but ours was written off as a total loss. The walls of our building collapsed about five hours into the blaze. It was hard to stand by and watch dreams go up in smoke.

Within a few days The Saginaw News reported that the City of Saginaw had contracted for clean-up. We had been negotiating for clean-up on our own. We had a contractor lined up who agreed to haul away the debris for $5,000. Instead the contract the City negotiated was for the demolition of a four-story building. (Our building was just rubble. There was no demolition necessary.) The clean-up contract reported that we’d owe $150,000, then it was lowered to $57,000. In any case, we didn’t have that kind of money to pay off the clean up company.

And the City gave all salvage rights to the clean-up company. One of our tenants had been allowed to store his motorcycle in the white building behind the main building. The fire didn’t touch it, but the clean-up company got the motorcycle. We had items stored in that building. We crept on to the property and took our broom, our shovel and a couple of souvenir bricks. But the rest was hauled away. (We’d have loved bricks to build a path at our home.)

Eventually insurance paid off the bank but we lost all our equity and had nothing to show for the three years’ of work John had invested.

We looked into the possibility of re-building on the site. With the help of a local congressman, we felt we could probably get a grant to re-build since low cost housing in that area was desperately needed. We sketched out plans and proposals.

But the City continued to fight us. It was a nightmare. We found an attorney who said he’d take our case against the City for a 1/3 contingency fee, but as is widely reported, “You can’t fight city hall.”

It was one headache after another. The City hired a fleet of attorneys.

After several weeks of struggling, John’s temper was near breaking point.

I suggested we “get out of town” for a day. We went to a hammered dulcimer festival in Evart, MI. We’d never been there, but we had enjoyed the sound of hammered dulcimers.

That day at the festival changed our lives. We listened to lovely music and knew we wanted to be part of that community. Within a couple of months, we’d purchased a dulcimer and John had built one.

The battle with the City of Saginaw continued for a couple of years. They decided to “go after us” for the grant money because (as they said), it wasn’t being used for the intended purpose. (It had been paid out for materials and contractors. All money had been controlled by the granting agency. It was all spent on the building.)

As the time added up, our attorney decided that it wasn’t worth it to his firm to continue to represent us. He sent us a bill for $25,000 and withdrew as our counsel. We met with him and couldn’t believe his position. We knew we’d agreed to pay him only if we won the case but his comment was “You have a place in the Upper Peninsula. I don’t have a place in the U.P. Don’t you feel guilty? Sign on the dotted line and agree to pay what you owe.” Basically he wanted us to agree to give up our place or pay the $25,000. We refused .

We filed a complaint with the State Bar. Our attorney was reprimanded.

But in the end, we represented ourselves in court. We lost our property to the City in exchange for the clean-up bill and the grant money.

The property is now a parking lot. Our dreams were snuffed out by the City of Saginaw.

The bitterness John felt was slow to dissipate. But the hammered dulcimer world became a big part of our lives.

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