GARDINER — A week after fire damaged his Water Street building, Fernando Stelser got some welcome news.

“The structural engineer didn’t say tear it down and start from scratch,” Stelser said. “In my mind, that would be devastating even more.”

That means when insurance claim is settled, 192 Water St. can be rebuilt.

“We have to gut the whole place,” he said, taking a short break Friday afternoon, “downstairs because of the water and upstairs because of the fire.”

In the early hours of Dec. 28, fire broke out between the second-floor ceiling and the roof of the former Maine Trust & Banking building at the corner of Water and Church streets.

For the next 13 hours, firefighters from Gardiner and surrounding communities as far away as Topsham poured water, sometimes at a rate of 1,000 gallons per minute, on the stubborn fire that had taken hold in a void between the ceiling and the roof.


“Had the fire been going in a space we had access to, it would have been out in no time,” Gardiner Fire Chief Al Nelson said.

Now, Stelser, who with his wife, Haldria Vale Jantorno, owns Domino’s franchises throughout central Maine, will work to bring the building back.

“Sometimes, I feel now we’re going to move, and then everything stops,” he said.

For now, the engineer is working on some plans to replace the roof.

Once the building is water-tight, work can start on the restaurant. Once that’s done, work can start on the offices in the building.

The building, which used to be four stories, is solidly built, he said.


In the meantime, plenty of work remains.

Stelser said his Gardiner employees have been moved to the couple’s Augusta Domino’s for the time being, and they can work available hours at other stores.

Stelser and Jantorno also have Domino’s franchises in Bath, Auburn, Brunswick, Freeport and Lisbon, and they are working on opening an eighth location.

The building’s tenants now are trying to figure out what’s next.

Among them are attorneys Kevin Sullivan and C.H. Skip Spurling, who had leased space at 2 Church St., and who have spent the week looking for alternate office space.

“It’s ugly,” Spurling said of the space he’s occupied since 1997. “You can look up and see the sky.”


Exactly a year before the fire, Sullivan had moved into the office. Each attorney has his own practice in the shared space.

“I love that location, and the old building,” Sullivan said. “I live in Gardiner and like the idea of being in Gardiner.”

By the end of this week, they said, they will decide whether they can stay in Gardiner.

Spurling said they have looked at a lot of spaces and talked to a lot of people, but finding an appropriate space is proving to be difficult.

“We have specific physical needs,” Spurling said. Among them are space for two attorneys and staff and ground-floor or handicapped access for their clients.

While all their documents have been backed up electronically, Spurling said Servpro is working to remove the smell of smoke from files stored in the office. He said he’s not sure whether the office’s copiers and computers can be salvaged.


Patricia Hart leased space on the building’s second floor for Hart Consulting. Hart, an economist, once had an office several buildings away from buildings that burned on Water Street in July 2015.

“I remember standing there looking at the firefighters and the burning building, and then running back into my office and jamming everything in my car — my ledgers, my computers, everything, my pictures.”

At that time, it was not clear whether the fire that destroyed 235 Water St. and damaged the neighboring buildings at 243 and 251 Water St. would spread down the block.

This time, she said, she didn’t have that opportunity to clear out her office, because the fire broke out in the middle of the night.

While her documents are all stored in the cloud, she said she’s not sure what can be salvaged.

A Gardiner police officer was able to bring her a painting done by her daughter that was hanging in her office.


She said she has secured space for the short term at 252 Water St., in the Milliken Block, owned by Mike Gent and Cheryl Clark. But if Stelser rebuilds, she said, she will move back to 192 Water St.

Hart, who is Gardiner’s mayor-elect and is scheduled to be sworn in Monday, said Gardiner has a fund that was set up in the wake of the 2015 Water St. fire to help people affected by that fire and by subsequent fires in the city.

“So many people have asked how they can help,” she said. “I’m fine. There are definitely things I have to take care of, but so many have lost so much in the various fires we have seen in the city.”

That fire fund has been depleted, she said, encouraging people to donate to it by dropping off a check at Gardiner City Hall or sending it to the United Way in care of the Gardiner Fire Fund.

As mayor, she will be a member of the committee that oversees the distribution of those funds, but she will not in the instance of this fire.

Stelser said he’s grateful for the support and outreach from the community and from Gardiner Main Street and city officials.


“Just like they support us, we want to support them,” he said.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: