DECATUR — Barring any setbacks, cleanup of the up the rubble of the former Aaction Equipment building on East Grand Avenue is expected to wrap up by the end of next week at a significantly lower cost than city officials feared.
Through a partnership between the city of Decatur and Springfield’s Operating Engineers Local 965, site cleanup began earlier this week, nearly three years after fire gutted the century-old warehouse that once stood there.
“It was a promise that we made to the community, that we would get this cleaned up before the end of 2017,” Decatur City Manager Tim Gleason said.
The city initially estimated the cleanup would cost about $300,000. While the total cost won't be known until the work is completed, Gleason said, internal estimates “optimistically” place the savings at about $100,000 through this partnership.
The union is using the operation as a training opportunity for apprentices, and city employees and trucks are being used to take the rubble to a nearby landfill.
The partnership is one of the ways Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe said the city can get “creative” about handling its financial situation. The city approved a budget on Monday that has a $3.2 million deficit.
“We couldn’t have afforded to clean it up on our own, so we talked to the unions, who offered to help,” she said. “So it’s cut our costs tremendously ... We didn’t just do it the way we’ve always done it; we found ways to make it work with our community members.”
A massive fire destroyed the building, which had housed a restaurant equipment business, in January 2015. The property was not insured, and the city took owner Robert Powell to court to force him to remove the large piles of charred bricks and other debris left behind when the structure collapsed. Powell died in April 2016, and the city postponed the case.
Questions about how to pay for the site cleanup had been ongoing for well over a year, Gleason said, but the partnership came from a conversation Moore Wolfe had with union officials.
Kent Campbell, the apprenticeship training coordinator for Local 965 who is overseeing the cleanup, said Moore Wolfe attended one of the union's recent open houses in Springfield. Campbell said they were explaining the apprenticeship opportunities they provide and the hands-on work they’ve done in the Springfield area, when Moore Wolfe asked if they would be interested in doing something in Decatur.
From there, Campbell said talks continued, and plans were laid to start work this week.
“This is one of our various ways for our members to work in their communities. It’s a win-win,” Campbell said. “We’re giving back to the community, and the apprentices are getting excellent training on something we cannot simulate at our training facility. It’s good for the local government as well, as it helps save them some money.”
About 15 apprentices, with four to five onsite at a time, are using heavy machinery to remove piles of bricks, pipes and other debris from the site, which takes up nearly an entire block along North Illinois Street between East Grand Avenue and East Locust Street. The rubble, which is believed to contain asbestos, has been sitting there since the fire. The massive fire required firefighters from across the region were called in to battle the blaze, which could be seen for miles as it lit up the night sky.
Campbell said apprentices are using a water hose to suppress asbestos or dust during the cleanup. Due to the condition of the materials, he said they will not be recycling any of the bricks.
“(We) cannot really recycle the bricks because of the way the building collapsed on itself, and it’s completely mixed in with the metal and wood,” he said. “It would be impossible in this situation, it just wouldn't be cost effective."
The cleanup has been a welcome sight for Mary Woods, who lives in a house diagonal from the site. Though she has only lived in her home for about a year, Woods said she’s hated the site of rubble from the very beginning. She also detests the rodents who call the rubble home.
“I’ve killed over 20 mice since I moved in here,” she said, noting the worst of it came last month when a mouse died inside of her stove, causing a foul smell whenever she tried to cook.
To fend off the mice, Woods said she recently purchased a cat named Smokey from an acquaintance.
“I don’t even like cats. I just needed to do something to take care of the mice,” she said.
The city must pay for the cleanup after the owner of the property, Robert Powell, died last year. Before then, Powell and the city had been tied up in a protracted legal battle over paying for the cleanup. The building was not insured at the time of the fire.
From 1894, the three-story building was home to Faries Manufacturing, one of Decatur's stalwarts of the industrial era, which made various commercial and consumer goods like kitchen cabinets, mirrors, bird cages and stands. Its Art Deco-style lamps from the 1930s are still sought-after by some collectors.
Demand for its products fell off in the late 1940s and 1950s, and the business sold the building to Sol Tick & Co. in 1955 and moved to Elkhart, Indiana. Powell bought the warehouse in 1979 and ran his restaurant equipment business out of it until the fire.
As the site clears, Woods had a simple answer to how she felt about the cleanup.
“It’s about time,” she said.