A disagreeable owner, possible fire hazards and a building with serious deterioration problems have city officials in a quandary over what to do with the former Carlisle’s building.
For the past three years, the city served the building’s former owner, Gary Harris, formerly of Conneaut, with code violations. Harris appeals the violations, which include fire and building code violations, according to City Solicitor Michael Franklin.
“We have a standing order for him to take care of fire code violations,” Franklin said.
Franklin also said he believes the building is owned by Pittsburgh Melon Trust, but Harris, who is serving time in a federal prison for tax evasion, has filed pleadings saying Pittsburgh Melon Trust is “a sham.”
Harris was found guilty in 2004 and sentenced to 151 months (12.5 years) in federal prison and fined $95,000, according to court records.
But even from his prison cell, Harris continues to throw roadblocks at the city’s efforts to clean up or demolish the unsightly and dangerous building.
“Our concern is public safety,” Franklin said. “We’re very concerned about the side on the alley; there’s a portion without a roof.”
The back portion of the building, which faces Park Avenue, is in danger of crumbling, city officials said.
“We would like to avoid it falling down,” Franklin said. “It’s not the Carlisle’s (store) people remember. It’s cold, wet and moldy inside.”
The Carlisle’s store that local people remember started as the Tyler and Carlisle dry goods store in the mid-19th century in the Ashtabula harbor. In 1852, the Lake Shore and Southern Michigan railroad, later the New York Central, crossed northeastern Ohio without building a spur to Ashtabula harbor.
In 1873 the Pennsylvania, Youngstown and Ashtabula Railroad built up to the harbor. West side harbor activity started when a brush-filled gully was leveled and business blocks were erected on the new Bridge Street. The harbor became part of Ashtabula in 1877, but the first link with downtown wasn’t made until 1882, when horse trolleys started service, according to “People and Places,” by Evelyn Schaeffer and Richard Stoner.
In 1874, the store now known as Carlisle and Tyler moved to a new brick building at 127 Main St. By the end of the century, the Tyler family left the business. Carlisle entered into partnership with Miles Allen in 1911 and formed Carlisle Company Department Stores at 163-165 Main St. The business expanded many times as the third generation of Carlisles — Ted, Ford and Tyler — took complete ownership through the postwar boom years of the 1950s and early 1960s, according to Schaeffer and Stoner.
Strip malls dotted the Ashtabula landscape in the 1960s, and urban renewal dawned in the 1970s, when the Arrowhead Mall arrived on Main Avenue. Carlisle’s survived both of these events under the leadership of Lorenzo Tyler Carlisle III, also known as Ren, who became president in 1979.
Main Avenue’s retail district did not survive the arrival of the Ashtabula Mall, and the fourth generation of Carlisle’s family business couldn’t compete with a retail industry dominated by huge national chains. In 1993, Carlisle’s opened a clothing company in the mall, but later that same year it entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, according to news reports at the time.
Since the closing of the Main Avenue building, the freeze/thaw cycle of northeast Ohio has taken its toll on the building, city officials said.
And, throughout the years, several groups have tried to raise enough money to fix it, but could not, even with the availability of loans, grants and foundation or government funds.
From 2003-07, the Civic Development Corp. of Ashtabula and the Ashtabula City Port Authority worked together to buy, remodel and redevelop the building and its property into an office complex for nonprofit organizations.
Led by Chairman Ron Kister, the City Port Authority would have served as owner, manager and redevelopment, and landlord. The idea caught on in the community, and in April 2005, KeyBank presented the CDC with a $75,000 multiyear grant to help purchase the building.
In 2006, Port Authority officials met with Harris at an eminent-domain hearing held in Ashtabula County Common Pleas Court Judge Gary Yost’s chambers. The meeting followed several unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a sale price. Harris appeared at the hearing in shackles. He was concerned about his belongings in the building, Port Authority officials said. The eminent-domain hearing was dismissed.
In 2007, four years after the City Port Authority’s initial evaluation of the Carlisle property, the building’s roof disintegrated and the project was abandoned.
Throughout the past several years, Ashtabula police say they have been called to the building when Main Avenue business owners reported seeing juveniles going in and out through broken windows. Vandalism also has been a problem, according to police reports.
Franklin said firefighters looked inside recently and found no indication of “squatters.” He warned the building is very dangerous for anyone who attempts to go inside because some of the floors have collapsed. In the meantime, the city continues to serve Harris with violations and to investigate its options on what to do with the dilapidated building.