Mission store shut for repairs; County officials rule building unsafe after cracks found in wall


Crumbling walls have forced the Westminster Rescue Mission Store, a popular and profitable thrift store that turns donated discards into revenue for the needy, to close for repairs.

A structural engineer and the county inspector ruled the building unsafe last week. Visible cracks snake down a bowed brick wall. The back and side walls could fall and the interior floors could collapse, said Ralph E. Green, chief of the county Bureau of Permits and Inspections.

"There is a bulge in the wall, and it could continue to push out further," said Green. "It could fall."

Green, who suspects "some type of structural failure," had the two-story shop at 57 E. Main St. posted as unsafe until repairs are completed.

"It could be ground conditions, failed footers, the effects of weather and aging," said Green. "This didn't just happen. The wall could have been moving for 10 years."

For more than 30 years, the Main Street store has had annual revenue of about $300,000. The store funds the Rescue Mission farm outside Westminster and a rehabilitation program for substance abusers who live there.

"About 75 percent of the money we need to operate the mission comes through the store," said the Rev. Clifford Elkins, mission executive director. "We really depend on that store."

The mission might have to abandon the century-old brick building it owns and pay rent on another.

The front display window is filled with merchandise, but tape bars entry to the shop and to the adjoining alley, both of which are labeled "closed for repairs."

Merchandise is crowded into the building's front section, which inspectors said is sound. The sales staff is idle.

Elkins is searching for a highly visible temporary location in the city, hoping to stay on Main Street. He needs space for a large inventory.

"I have been in mission work for 27 years, but real estate is a new experience for me," he said. "We are willing to pay rent. We just have to have something to hold us over."

The store stocks clothing, toys, collectibles and furniture. It attracts the needy, bargain-hunters, antiques dealers and vintage-clothing shoppers.

Five mission residents wait outside the store every day to accept donations. They usually fill a moving van daily. For now, all items are going into storage at the farm on Lucabaugh Mill Road. No one is discouraging donations.

"We are keeping a truck at the store every day," said Elkins.

Repairs might lead to rebuilding, at least of the back section, which inspectors assume is the newest part of the structure.

The original Main Street front has been added to at least twice.

The closing came abruptly on Jan. 26, hours after an employee reported a widening interior crack to Elkins.

"The crack started at one side and went all the way across the room," said Elkins. "It really looked like the outside wall was moving out."

A specific cause and the extent and expense of repairs await an engineer's report expected by the end of the week.

The county routinely inspects construction and renovation projects, but checks on older buildings less frequently.

A county permit is required before the store can reopen. Repairs and an inspection could take months.

"It may be that as much as two-thirds of the building will have to be replaced," said M. Belle Holt, the store manager, who begins each day with "thanks to the Lord for everything we get and a hope that we can sell it."

If the front section is ruled sound, Green said, the county might allow the mission to reopen in that space and seal off the back while it undergoes repairs.

The decision depends on the engineer's report, he said.

Holt and her staff of seven are eager to return to their jobs. They and several volunteers sort and sell donations six days a week.

"We have to do a good job here; we are supporting 40 men," she said, referring to the rehabilitation program.

Elkins plans to remain on Main Street, through repairs or rebuilding.

"Whatever happens, we intend to stay at this location," he said.

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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