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Blaze destroys Babbitt grocery store, pharmacy

It's hard to imagine Babbitt without a Zup's grocery store or Zup's without Babbitt, one of the owners of the store said on Saturday. "Babbitt's been a big part of our company, and the Zupancich family has always been community-minded," Jim Zupan...

Babbitt fire
A front-end loader assists firefighters as they battle a large fire at the Babbitt shopping center early Saturday morning. (Peter Makowski / Northland Fire Wire, www.nlfirewire.com)

It's hard to imagine Babbitt without a Zup's grocery store or Zup's without Babbitt, one of the owners of the store said on Saturday.

"Babbitt's been a big part of our company, and the Zupancich family has always been community-minded," Jim Zupancich said on Saturday, hours after the Zup's and the adjoining Babbitt Drug Store burned to the ground. "A community without a grocery store -- it'd be tough on a community."

Firefighters were still on the scene late Saturday afternoon, Babbitt Fire Chief Ryan Scharber said. The fire was reported at 1:57 a.m. and by the time the first firefighters arrived at 2:05 a.m. there was heavy, black smoke coming from the roof of the Zup's store. Seventy firefighters from nine area departments battled the fire through the night, using about

1.5 million gallons of water, Scharber said.

Cause of the fire was unknown, but it was not considered suspicious, Scharber said. The state fire marshal had been on the scene since 5 a.m.

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No one was injured.

Scharber estimated the loss at more than $1 million. Three other businesses in the building -- Babbitt Weekly News, New Dimensions gym and a U.S. Bank branch -- sustained significant water damage, he said. A diner known as Kell's Kitchen and a Laundromat sustained minor smoke damage.

But none of the businesses is likely to be able to reopen for at least a week, Scharber said. Electrical service to the building was severely damaged.

Security guards had been posted to protect the bank branch, he said.

The Zupancich family business, Zupancich Brothers Inc. of Ely, owns the building, and the other businesses lease space from them. The metal structure was built in the late 1950s, Zupancich said.

The family owns six Zup's grocery stores on the Iron Range and North Shore.

Zupancich marveled at the firefighting effort. "These guys were so good you couldn't believe it," he said. "They just did a fantastic job of saving what could have been a total loss of the entire shopping center."

The grocery store has 26 employees, he said. Some of them may be able to work in the family's other five stores. He didn't yet know if the store's insurance would provide some pay for employees until the store is rebuilt.

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"We're in such a shock," Zupancich said. "We won't know anything until we have the actual logistics of the insurance and what our company needs to do to get this back again and hopefully rebuild again."

Zup's was Babbitt's only grocery store. The Zup's in Ely, about 15 minutes away, is the closest available to Babbitt, Zupancich said. "Management is talking about a possible mobile grocery store (in Babbitt), or setting up a bus service twice a week from Babbitt over to Ely for the elderly and whoever would want to take part in that. But again, it's one of those things you want to see what we can afford right now and what we can do to make it better for the whole area."

Zup's and the drug store "were probably the two most important businesses in town," Scharber said. "We only have one of each."

Related Topics: ELYFIRESIRON RANGE
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