Mr. C's, old El Tapatio to be burned to train firefighters

for the Mail Tribune

Two landmark buildings at the north end of Ashland could be ashes by Monday, but no one is likely to mourn their passing.

If air quality allows, firefighters will burn down the old Mr. C's and El Tapatio buildings Sunday morning, clearing the way for major changes at the intersection of South Valley View Road and Highway 99.

The site has been a utilitarian place to stop for gas and fast food for decades. The buildings stood between the highway and Lithia Springs Resort and Gardens, much to the frustration of resort owner Dean Smith, who acquired the buildings and the land beneath them after years of effort and now plans to transform the area into the resort's main entry.

Firefighters from Jackson County Fire District No. 5 have been practicing their skills on the buildings for two weeks, opening up the roof as a pathway for heat, smoke and gases to get out, said Darin Welburn, division chief.

Smith said he tried for decades to buy the roadside spot, but the owner resisted, and after his death, his son did the same. Smith finally closed a deal with the grandson.

Asked whether he would be watching the old buildings burn, Smith said, "You bet I will."

On Sunday at 7:30 a.m., if air mixing is good, firefighters will light fires in the buildings and then put them out to gain real-life experience. Then, Welburn said, "we'll light it off and it'll be on the ground at 10 or 10:30."

Atmospheric conditions have been right four of five days this week and they're expected to be good Sunday, Welburn said.

Mr. C's is a wood structure and will burn readily. The old Tapatio is brick with a wood roof, which will help firefighters learn to breach a block wall, Welburn said.

If air conditions aren't satisfactory for burning, the buildings will be razed and hauled away Wednesday.

After Lithia Springs acquired the site, El Tapatio relocated to a new building Smith built a few hundred yards closer to town, and the owners of Mr. C's moved their business to Grants Pass.

"Now that El Tapatio is established in its new location, we are ready to proceed with removing the old buildings, landscaping the area and sprucing up the north Ashland interchange," Smith said.

Plans also call for the intersection to get a four-way traffic light.

Smith and fellow resort owners John and Kathy Chmelir now operate 16 cottages, six suites and five rooms for tourists. They are seeking state approval for a fractional ownership program, which would allow people to own and use a vacation home at a fraction of the cost of sole ownership.

Smith also wants to build a place to taste Oregon wines. He envisions a wine barn with 24 booths to showcase local wines and direct visitors to local wineries.

Eventually the group wants to build a restaurant and bring in what Smith called "a quality, world-class operation."

John Chmelir, longtime engineer and builder in the Rogue Valley, said the group remains confident that Ashland will continue to be a strong vacation spot despite the down economy because the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and attractive Ashland businesses will draw visitors.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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