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Weeds, homeless take over commercial site

August 09, 2001|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer

One of El Centro's most visible commercial sites remains without anchor tenants as weeds and the homeless have taken over.

The location is the former home of Heilig-Meyers furniture and Office Depot at 550 and 650 N. Imperial Ave., respectively. Heilig-Meyers closed in October while Office Depot closed in March.

Mayor Cheryl Walker said city staff has a good handle on the vacant buildings in the city.

"That location is just one of a handful that comes readily to mind," she said.

Oscar Rodriquez, the city's economic development director, said the sites' owners are from out of town.

"We've had some interest calls" on the Heilig-Meyers site, he said.

Imperial-based property manager Howard Worthington is showing the former Office Depot building to potential tenants.

"There has been a little bit of interest, but that's a pretty good size box," he said, adding that each store is 28,000 square feet.

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He also said the county has shown some interest in the space.

Meanwhile, it didn't take long for weeds and the homeless to take over once the stores closed.

Walker agreed the weeds are overgrown but said the homeless people are off to one side of the area.

"We're always going to have the problem of the homeless," she said. "It's a difficult thing for most people to understand why someone would choose that as a lifestyle."

Walker is a former board member of WomanHaven, now Center for Family Solutions, which works with the homeless.

Monday there was only one homeless man at the site, with the belongings of another nearby.

Frank Johnson, originally from Seattle, said the homeless do not bring any problems to the area.

"This is supposed to be a clean area, so it's clean," he said. "We clean it up, we pick it up every morning; you're damn right. It won't be a garbage dump."

Johnson said he likes living under the roof of Heilig-Meyers because it provides shade and cover from the rain.

Johnson was asked what he will do when new businesses open there.

"I'll get by," he said.

The area has noticeably deteriorated, especially on the south side of the lot, since the closures of the businesses. The weeds are about 3 feet high and one of the plate glass windows of the former Heilig-Meyers is broken.

Worthington said no one is taking care of that building or side of the property. He said the water and electricity have been turned off, and that after weeks of searching, he was finally able to notify the appropriate people, in Indianapolis, that the building is deteriorating. County tax assessor records show the building is owned by Heilig-Meyers in Richmond, Va.

By contrast, the former Office Depot building is being looked after by Worthington, with noticeable results. The north side of the site is cleaner, the weeds are under control and the trees along Euclid Avenue look fine. Worthington said the building's utilities are still on.

He said the homeless are a problem he occasionally brings to the attention of El Centro police.

El Centro Police Chief Raymond Loera said the appearance of homeless people in the area is a recurring matter and that the police frequently go by and inform the homeless to move.

"They keep coming back," Loera said.

The closed stores have affected at least one of the local businesses.

"It is not affecting us because they created additional business for us. It affects us because the homeless are moving in," said Oscar Herrera, owner of Celia's Restaurant.

Herrera, who sympathizes with the plight of the homeless — and provides them with water, ice and sometimes food — said such people have the right to live as they see fit, but he's concerned with the lack of public facilities for the homeless to use.

"It's not a matter of feeding them," he said. "It's a matter of …. "Who's going to clean it?"

Herrera suggested one solution, at least to the cleanliness problem, would be for business organizations such as chambers of commerce to seek additional moneys from businesses and clean up such business areas that are temporarily vacant.

Herrera said local government cannot do the job because the public refuses to give government what it needs to do its job.

"If we don't do things for ourselves, who's going to do it?" he said.

Calls to other businesses about the same lot were either referred to national headquarters or to a manager not expected to return for days.

Staff Writer Rudy Yniguez can be reached at 337-3440.

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