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Last year this commercial block on Atlantic Avenue in Atwater had deep craters and debris from three businesses that were destroyed by arson. Now the block features green grass, new utilities, a rebuilt street and lots that are ready for building. (Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange)

Fire-ravaged site in Atwater, Minn.'s business district primed for development

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ATWATER -- The nightmarish rubble and gaping hole from a devastating fire that struck Atwater's business district in February of 2011 has been filled in, fixed up and the area is now ready for new construction.

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Topped with a spring growth of new grass, the three vacant lots on Atlantic Avenue have new utilities and a newly graded and paved street.

"It's site ready for anybody to put a single-story building on it," said Jim Solheid, Atwater's building inspector.

After three prominent buildings that housed businesses were destroyed by arson, the burned debris remained in place for about six months while fire and insurance officials conducted an investigation.

As part of the demolition and cleanup, the city required that the debris be removed from the site. That meant digging out the concrete walls and blocks from the old basements where much of the burned timbers, brick and merchandise had collapsed.

Solheid said everything was properly disposed of, including taking some of the materials from the hardware store to a hazardous waste landfill.

Some of the bricks and blocks were crushed and recycled.

New dirt was brought in to fill in the holes and the soil was compacted to 95 percent capacity. That was done to make sure there would be no issues for future construction like a slab-on-grade structure. "It's a nice site," said Solheid.

"We wanted it buildable," said Atwater City Clerk Goldie Smith.

With the reconstruction of Atlantic Avenue going on at the same time, the city opted to stub in new water and sewer lines to the property.

The city's Economic Development Authority hasn't been actively marketing the site yet. It's been busy helping other businesses relocate in town, including Sticker Boy Signs, which lost its home in the fire. That business is planning to move into another existing storefront on Atlantic Avenue.

But Mayor Mark Olson said the City Council is considering purchasing the three lots.

Having one owner for the property could make it easier to market it for future development.

"Maybe that way we can attract somebody who'll build a business there," said Olson.

The City Council is expected to discuss the land purchase when it meets next month.

He said if the city did agree to purchase the land, it would not spend a lot of money on it. "We'll discuss it and see what happens," said Olson.

Meanwhile, investigators with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are still looking for leads in the fire. Anyone with information can call the 24-hour fire hotline at 888-283-3473. A $5,000 reward is being offered.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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