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Sunnyside seeks to save history while losing historic Safari

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Sunnyside City Manager Mark Gervasi (center) shouts for contractors to stop demolition work on the Safari Restaurant in order to save its landmark signs.

Stop, that means something to people here!" Sunnyside City Manager Mark Gervasi shouted over a bulldozer plowing through the exterior of the Safari Restaurant.

Gervasi hustled into action to save the Safari's landmark neon sign which was tilting, in danger of falling as a bulldozer demolished the front.

It was all part of activity yesterday, Tuesday, as Sunnyside rallied around what was left of the Safari and El Conquistador restaurants from a fire this past Sunday.

The original plan suggested by Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Pam Turner was for the neon sign to come down first and hauled away to be stored in a building that houses parade floats.

"We are happy with that," said Enedina Carrasco, whose family owns the Safari.

That strategy came undone when the Safari's insurance company declined to pay for the extra costs associated with removing the sign.

Moments later a bulldozer was tearing through the building, seemingly oblivious to the teetering sign and cries to stop.

A deal was struck on the spot to save the sign, as the insurer pledged to cover the first $1,000 to remove the sign and the city taking care of the remainder.

Virginia Staggers gave Gervasi a bear hug, thanking him for the gesture.

"People need to realize we're losing our history," Gervasi said.

Staggers is well aware of that history.

"In its heyday it was the place to be 50 years ago," she said of Saturday night dances and Sunday afternoon lunches at the Safari.

She recalled well-known musical groups that played at the Safari. "It was on a tour circuit," Staggers said.

One of her children even claims she danced with Evel Knievel at the Safari. "I don't remember that!" Staggers laughed.

The Safari building, which is believed to have been built in 1909, may be gone, but memories and that sign still remain.

And Staggers wants to make sure it stays that way, offering to join an effort led by Turner to raise the money to pay for what the insurance company doesn't cover for the sign's removal.

Saving the sign, however, doesn't save an estimated 20 jobs lost to Sunday's fire.

About 10 of those jobs were at El Conquistador. Owner Jose Mora said his employees may not be out of work long.

"I might open another restaurant elsewhere in town, maybe soon. I like to work," Mora said. "I'm looking at a couple of places."

Doug Pecheos owns the Blue Moon next to the Safari, and he said water damage continues to get worse because of the water being poured on the fire.

He figures it will be two weeks at least before he re-opens.

"I've been here 21 years and we'd only been closed two days," he said. "And now this."

Pecheos continued, "It's sad, I feel bad for everyone, the building owners, the community."

Turner, whose chamber office served as headquarters for ATF agents investigating the fire, sees hope through the smoke and rubble that still fill downtown.

"Our sympathies go out to the business owners and families who suffered this tragic loss," Turner said. "In looking to the future, this is a time for rebirth and renewal."

She sees the rebuild from Sunday's fire as an opportunity, "a stepping stone for the revitalization of downtown Sunnyside."

She says the city, the chamber and downtown building owners need to act with urgency, much like that showed by Gervasi in saving the Safari sign.

"The window for this opportunity is small," Turner said. "City officials, downtown business owners and the community must seize upon the moment to turn downtown Sunnyside into an economically viable, family friendly showpiece that will make Sunnyside proud."

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