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Uncertainty shrouds local businesses after Downtown Mini Mall fire

Uncertainty lingered over the Denton Square on Wednesday with the penetrating smell of smoke.

As Leo Will, owner of the now-charred Downtown Mini Mall, stood with his family in front of what's left of his 37-year-old shop, other nearby business owners sifted through their soot-covered inventory. The Tuesday morning fire, which authorities believe started near the back of the mini mall at about 3 a.m., ravaged the building and left neighbors with smoke and water damage.

The future is cloudy for retailers like Shop the Barn and La Di Da. They both hope to reopen in the future, but the owners are still grappling with the loss of their merchandise to smoke and soot. Jupiter House coffee shop and Hooligans bar were also closed Wednesday afternoon, as the overall extent of the damage on the east side of the Square remains unclear.

Workers were stationed inside Jupiter House on Wednesday as cleaning crews assessed the damage of Tuesday morning's fire at the Downtown Mini Mall next door. It's unclear when the coffee shop will reopen.DRC
Workers were stationed inside Jupiter House on Wednesday as cleaning crews assessed the damage of Tuesday morning's fire at the Downtown Mini Mall next door. It's unclear when the coffee shop will reopen.
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There's still more uncertainty around the cause of the blaze, according to Denton Fire Marshal Brad Lahart. Investigators haven't been able to collect any physical evidence, and they're working to extract any video footage from the security cameras inside the mini mall, he said.

Lahart said the first firefighters on the scene entered the building before the flames penetrated the roof. They didn't encounter any flames within 30 feet of the front entrance, which gives them reason to believe the fire started in the back, he said.

"There was heavy smoke throughout, but they didn't have any fire at all [in the front]," Lahart said.

He said insurance adjusters and structural engineers still need to determine the next step in the rebuilding process. Meanwhile, Will's family members have set up two GoFundMe accounts — one for the several dozen vendors who sold items in the store, and the other for repairs to the building.

Will's wife, Shirley Will, said many residents have already reached out to offer support.

"People have been wonderful," she said. "It's just heartwarming to see how people come together to help us with something tragic like this."

Four of the eight apartments that were affected by the fire are now inhabitable, according to Nick Miller, vice president of property manager The Martino Group. The apartments are located above Shop the Barn and La Di Da, which sits directly adjacent to the mini mall.

Miller said he didn't know whether the residents had returned to those four apartments. The other four units still don't have electricity, he said.

"There's a lot to find out about the damage done in the walls between our buildings," he said. "We're kind of in a waiting period."

The east side of the Square remained in disarray Wednesday afternoon. The devastated mini mall was fenced off. Cleaning equipment sat on truck beds as cleanup and restoration crews shuffled from business to business, taking stock of the work ahead.

Several small-business owners were reeling from the damage caused by a fire Tuesday morning at the Downtown Mini Mall in Denton. The owners of both La Di Da and Shop the Barn were taking stock of their damaged inventory on Wednesday. Both stores suffered serious smoke damage.DRC
Several small-business owners were reeling from the damage caused by a fire Tuesday morning at the Downtown Mini Mall in Denton. The owners of both La Di Da and Shop the Barn were taking stock of their damaged inventory on Wednesday. Both stores suffered serious smoke damage.
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Some businesses on that side of the Square will either open soon or have already opened. 

Leo Will said the mini mall's nearby sister business, Downtown Mini Mall II, will be open Thursday. North Texas Foot and Ankle Specialists opened Wednesday, but the office manager said the staff won't be able to see patients until Tuesday. The Bank Building, which houses three commercial businesses on Locust Street at the corner of Hickory Street, was not affected by the blaze. On the other end of the block, Andy's Bar and Paschall Bar have maintained their normal hours.

Kristi Stokes, owner of the cleaning and restoration company Servpro, said it's too early to tell when the other businesses will be able to reopen. One of the biggest factors is damage to the interior wiring, she said.

"There's so much behind the ceilings and behind the walls," she said. "So, electricians are on site. Contractors are on site, just trying to figure out the scope of the work here."

On Wednesday afternoon, Courtney Johnson, who owns Shop the Barn with her husband, packed smoke-damaged merchandise into storage bins on the sidewalk. The store, which offers vintage home decor, had up to $12,000 worth of stock destroyed by smoke, she said.

While they don't have fire insurance for the business, they do have more inventory in storage, she said. The owners hope to be back open within a month.

"This is my life," Johnson said. "This is what I do. I'm here almost every day when it's open. And we've gone on trips to Michigan, to Arkansas and Oklahoma, and found all this stuff. And I take a lot of pride in the way it's merchandised."

The owners of La Di Da boutique are faced with a similar situation, as smoke and soot ruined all of their products, according to co-owner Emily Wiest.

"It's not looking good," she said, adding that it'll take at least a month before they can think about reopening.

The Courthouse on the Square will remain closed "until further notice," county officials said. Easterly winds blew smoke and soot into the historic building, leaving an invisible layer of the powdery substance throughout the interior, according to Denton County Emergency Services Director Jody Gonzalez.

The Courthouse on the Square will remain closed while workers clean the soot off the interior of the building. Crews from ServiceMaster were assessing the damage in building on Wednesday after a Tuesday morning fire ravaged the Downtown Mini Mall.DRC
The Courthouse on the Square will remain closed while workers clean the soot off the interior of the building. Crews from ServiceMaster were assessing the damage in building on Wednesday after a Tuesday morning fire ravaged the Downtown Mini Mall.
DRC

County commissioners held an emergency meeting at 10 a.m. in the Denton County Elections building to approve a contract for repairs. ServiceMaster, another cleaning and restoration company, was assessing the damage in the building  Wednesday.

Gonzalez said he doesn't anticipate the closure lasting beyond 10 days. Until then, commissioners will meet in the multipurpose training room in the Denton County Elections and Technology Services building at 701 Kimberly Drive. Commissioners typically meet upstairs at the Courthouse on the Square. 

Stephanie Will-Shipp, Leo Will's daughter, said the family hopes to rebuild the Downtown Mini Mall, but they still need more details on the damage and fire investigation.  As the creator of the family's GoFundMe accounts, she assured donors the money will go directly toward the building and vendors. 

"If we can get a little help, it's a possibility that we could rebuild it," she said. "I know that's what [my dad] wants to do. ... We're doing the best we can to try and pull it together." 

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882.