Today's opening of the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor is a celebration of perseverance more than three years after the project's groundbreaking.
It also is a study in contrasts. Across the street from the clean, new 15,000-squarefoot waterfront museum is the charred and boarded-up Le Bistro restaurant, a community landmark known for providing a family atmosphere and homestyle fare for nearly 20 years until it burned last winter.
“I wish I had my business and could be celebrating there, too, with them,” said Debi McAlpine, who owned the restaurant with her husband, Ken, who died from cancer June 1. “I was looking forward to being able to serve the people who came to see the museum. It’s just very sad for my whole family.”
Meanwhile, the area around the museum is facing lane closures and traffic tie-ups, mostly at night, because of the replacement of an aging water main. Crews have finished installing the first section of pipe from an intersection near Le Bistro to Stinson Avenue. Next week, they will begin work on the second section from the intersection of Rosedale Street and Harborview Drive toward Stinson. The $1.2 million project is scheduled for completion in mid-November.
Le Bistro is in the 4100 block of Harborview Drive. Its future is as cloudy today as it was on the night of Feb. 10 when an arson fire gutted it. McAlpine filed a claim but State Farm insurance refuses to pay it, said her attorney, Gary Williams. He said the company believes McAlpine played a role in the arson.
Damage to the 105-year-old peaked-roof house was estimated at between $350,000 and $450,000. The investigation revealed the presence of two accelerants – lighter fluid and gasoline – on the main floor, Fire Marshal Dick Bower said. A can similar in shape and size to one that holds lighter fluid was found under the debris.
“It was arson, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.
The criminal investigation led by the Gig Harbor Police Department remains open. Investigators have exhausted their leads but still want to interview McAlpine and her two adult daughters, Sgt. Kelly Busey said.
“The family members remain persons of interest,” he said, “but they refuse to cooperate with the investigation.”
McAlpine has had money problems. She owes more than $14,000 in back property taxes on Le Bistro, dating to 2008; in May she paid her taxes from 2007 to prevent Pierce County from starting foreclosure proceedings, records show.
Foreclosure was initially started on her Gig Harbor-area home last year but was discontinued in August 2009, records show.
McAlpine characterized as “ridiculous” any allegation that she and her family had a hand in the fire. She said they have declined to make any statements to police on the advice of their attorney.
On Sept. 2, McAlpine sued State Farm in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, alleging that the insurance company was acting in bad faith. The complaint alleges State Farm “turned on her, treated her like a criminal, using her losses to its advantage.”
“She’s not an arsonist,” Williams said. “These aren’t criminals. These are very nice people. State Farm has taken the position from Day 1 that they aren’t going to pay if they don’t have to.”
The State Farm investigator assigned to the case didn’t return phone messages seeking comment. A State Farm spokeswoman in Du-Pont said Thursday that the company would not comment on pending litigation.
McAlpine put the property up for sale in July. Her broker, Cyndi Wilson, said there have been more than a half-dozen serious inquiries. The list price is $474,000, and the property could be used as a restaurant or office.
“It has a lot of potential,” Wilson said, while noting it’s difficult to start or relocate a business right now because of the poor economy.
Bower said the city has heard a couple of concerns about the building, but it’s being patient because of the family’s personal and financial issues and local economic conditions.
“It may reach a point where it becomes a nuisance that needs to be abated,” Bower said, adding that no timeline has been set.
Jennifer Kilmer, the museum director, said she’s been focused on the grand opening and hasn’t contacted anyone to inquire about Le Bistro
“Obviously, I’d love to have a functioning business there, but beyond that, I can’t really comment,” she said.
As for the water main project, the city is urging people to be patient as the project progresses.