AUGUSTA — Three downtown businesses will be ordered to close Wednesday because of safety-related code problems at the building they occupy at 275-287 Water St., officials said.

Owners of the businesses — Gagliano’s Italian Bistro, Patricia Buck Bridal and the Forbidden Fruit retail shop — don’t have to move their inventory out and may enter the building themselves, but they won’t be able to allow customers in or continue to run their businesses at those locations.

Augusta Code Enforcement Officer Rob Overton said he notified the owners of the business Tuesday that he would order them to close Wednesday.

He said building owner Mark Zaloga, of New York, was told in an Aug. 10 hand-delivered letter he had to provide the city with documentation that the electrical and sprinkler systems of the building had been inspected and meet code within 14 days, a deadline that expired this week.

Overton said Zaloga failed to turn in any documentation about the electrical system and did provide an inspection report for the sprinkler system. But the inspection report indicated the sprinkler system had failed the inspection, in part because of visible damage to a valve that allows water to enter the sprinkler system.

“So we’re in a situation where you have an electrical system we don’t believe is safe to use, a fire hazard, and a fire suppression system that may not work in the event of a fire,” Overton said. “We notified all the tenants there and it does appear they’re going to voluntarily comply with our order to close.”

Patricia Buck, owner of the bridal shop and a former owner of the building, said someone she could not identify is interested in buying the building from Zaloga and that person could fix the code violations in the building and bring it back into shape.

“He plans to rehab the entire building,” Buck said of the potential new owner Tuesday while speaking with Steve Pecukonis, downtown manager and executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, about the situation. “I don’t want to leave.”

Buck owned the building from 1993 until she sold it to Zaloga two years ago.

Zaloga could not be reached for comment.

Zaloga called Overton Aug. 14 to announce his intention to close the building rather than make the repairs. Overton said Tuesday he had not been able to reach Zaloga since their conversation about shutting down the building.

Jason McFarland, husband of Helena Gagliano-McFarland, said the family was too emotional to comment about the forced closure of Gagliano’s Italian Bistro.

“We support downtown Augusta. We want to be here,” he said from the restaurant porch, which affords a view of the Kennebec River. “It’s an emotional time.”

Pecukonis noted at least two of the affected businesses are family businesses, and he said he hoped a new owner will step forward to make improvements to reopen the prominent building and keep the businesses in place.

“We’d like to see a new owner for this building who has the interest and resources to do the things that need to be done,” he said. “This is devastating for these families, who depend on these businesses and, through no fault of their own, are losing their livelihoods.”

Pecukonis said the building, if renovated and brought up to code, could be a “showpiece.”

The building once was known as the Farrell’s building, having been home to that former clothing shop for many years.

Buck worried that brides will be nervous and said she wanted to assure them they still will be able to get their dresses at Patricia Buck Bridal.

Buck said brides who have ordered dresses, and other customers, can call her at the shop at 622-6224 and she will be able to get them their dresses. She said she also will post information on the business’s door about how customers can reach her. She said she may open in another location on Water Street.

She said she has two floors of racks filled with dresses, totaling about $1 million worth of inventory. She said the sprinkler system works but its alarm system doesn’t. She said the valve for it is old but still works, and she said her area of the building meets codes.

“I’m an anchor for the downtown,” Buck said. “I get people from all over the state. I bring people in and they eat at the restaurants and go to other stores.”

She said Overton, in ordering her business to close, was acting “like he’s the king of everywhere.”

A worker at Forbidden Fruit, a smoke shop and clothing and gift store, declined to comment but agreed to pass on a reporter’s phone number. The owner could not be reached for comment.

The building is also home to the offices of Legalize Maine, which also are expected to be ordered to close Wednesday.

Overton said the code violations at the building are the result of years of neglect.

“It’s not a decision we’ve made lightly, but it’s something that needed to happen to protect the neighboring buildings downtown and the lives of anybody entering that building,” he said. “There is nothing Gagliano’s, Forbidden Fruit or Legalize Maine has done to cause this situation. It is simply neglect.”

Overton’s investigation of code problems at the building started after the Greater Augusta Utility District told him, earlier this month, that building owner Zaloga had inquired about shutting off water service to the building’s sprinkler system.

Overton said the commercial building is required to have a sprinkler system, and if it were shut off, all the businesses in it would be ordered to shut down.

While at the property during the first week in August, Overton and the fire chief inspected the structure and, Overton said, found “significant” code problems on the second, third and fourth floors of the building, which stands prominently near the center of the city’s downtown. Those problems included the upper floors having only one exit, inadequate emergency lighting and the lack of a fire alarm system.

He said they also noticed signs of water leaking through the roof, which had caused large areas of interior ceilings to collapse, and obvious signs that water had penetrated the electrical system on those upper floors. Standing water was on both the third and fourth floors at the time of the inspection, and other areas had plastic tarps and buckets collecting water, Overton said.

The following Friday, Overton said, Zaloga called him to tell him he would close the building rather than make the required repairs.

Overton said he, Deputy Fire Chief David Groder and Rich McCarthy, assistant state fire marshal, inspected the building a second time Aug. 19 and found additional code problems, including problems involving the heating system and plumbing.

Gagliano’s closed for three days in mid-August after relatively minor code violations were discovered by Overton and a state health inspector while Overton was conducting a larger inspection of the building. A leaking faucet at the restaurant got the electrical system there wet, and the restaurant owners were told they had to close until a licensed electrician could ensure the electrical system’s safety.

Overton stressed that there were no health concerns about any of the restaurant’s practices.

The restaurant owners scrambled to fix the leak and get the necessary service people to sign off that it was safe to reopen within three days, and Overton signed off, allowing them to reopen. Their excitement about reopening was tempered by building owner Zaloga’s announcement that Friday afternoon that he intended to close the building within two months and put the building up for sale.

The building’s two uppermost floors, where most of the code problems were found, are vacant.

Buck said she planned to open Wednesday and would remain open as long as she could.

Overton said he visited representatives of all the businesses Tuesday and, while not happy with the situation, they seemed to understand and also seemed to indicate they would comply voluntarily. He said if they don’t, the city would have to, and is ready to, take legal action.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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