GEORGETOWN - Six months after fire burned a football-field-sized hole along Front Street that consumed eight historic waterfront buildings, the city is bouncing back.

More than half of the affected businesses have relocated and reopened to new storefronts just a few blocks away.

The finishing touches are being applied to a colorful mural of the lost buildings just across the street.

And more than $200,000 has been donated and distributed to property owners, tenants and employees to help them cope with the disruption.

The last piece of the recovery, rebuilding atop the eight rubble-strewn lots, is expected to take the longest of all. On four of the eight properties, the job of clearing away some contaminated debris is only wrapping up this week.

And property owners and city officials are scheduled to meet Wednesday to select an architect to come up with a concept for what to build next, Mayor Jack Scoville said.

"We've had 50 different suggestions - from a public park to a high-rise condominium complex," he said. "Somewhere in that mix, there ought to be something that's viable."

A slow clearing out

The state's investigation did not determine exactly what started the fire, but it found no sign of arson or foul play, Scoville said. It did find a restaurant was refinishing some tables, and oil-soaked rags were left in a trash bag out back. "That seems to be the best explanation of the cause," he said.

Austin Hays, the project manager with Target Environmental, looked on Friday as his workers in protective suits and respirator masks filled up a series of dump trucks with brick, singed wood and other rubble. He said the last of the 80 truckloads are expected to be hauled off this week.

Scoville and others said the fire has not hurt Georgetown's tourism. If anything, it might have drawn more visitors. Hays saw signs of that.

As his crews filled the trucks, he noted, "A lot of people like to take pictures and watch."

Judy Maring, an artist who works nearby at the Georgetown Art Gallery, was among the curious who stopped to watch the work Friday. "I'm just so excited to see it," she said.

Next door, Karen Beal of Black Mingo Outfitters said she has heard comments that suggest the fire has given people yet another reason to travel here.

"I've heard a lot of people saying, 'We wanted to come to Georgetown. We wanted to see what happened. We want to support you,'" she said. "It's been heartwarming, to say the least."

The city had cleared debris from the river by December, and the wooden walkway has been patched up and reopened.

Scoville said residents have not become too frustrated with the slow pace of demolition on the lots themselves because most understand how the asbestos contamination, bad winter weather and other factors have pushed back the work.

"It was frustrating to people who weren't aware of what the facts were," he said, adding that the city agreed to pay about $5,000 for further contamination testing just to avoid further delays from property owners debating who should pay what.

"We felt like let's just move on," he said. "It's not worth bickering over."

'A lot of hope'

Banker Matt Wesolowski can look out the window from his First Citizen's office across Front Street and see the rubble.

After the fire, he and others announced a special relief fund, which collected more than $210,000, including donations from as far away as New York, Michigan and California.

"It gave a lot of these business owners and building owners a lot of hope," he said. "Our goal for the fund was to meet the immediate needs of the fire victims - to get them clothes, food, a hotel room for a week or two. We never envisioned over $200,000 was going to be raised."

Almost all of it has been distributed to property owners, business owners, tenants and employees whose lives and livelihoods were affected.

"They always tell me this fund meant so much," he said. " It helped bridge the gap."

Near the bank, Michele Overton of Clock Tower Books hired artist Asher Robinson to paint a mural of the lost buildings, a mural that even includes the face of a dog, the fire's sole fatality.

Businesses move on, but not far

The businesses burned out by the fire didn't wait for the 700 block of Front Street to be rebuilt. Most have made a new start just two blocks west.

"Every cloud has a silver lining," Scoville said. "The 900 block of Front Street had a lot of vacant stores and was on the other end of the main business area. The silver lining of the fire was that three or four of the businesses relocated up here, so that's made this end of the street a lot more vibrant."

Scoville said a fifth, the owners of Buzz's Roost, also are near completion on a deal that would allow them to reopen on Front Street.

Ann Carlson ran Harborwalk Books on Front Street and reopened recently inside Fogel Wharf as Waterfront Books.

"You don't realize how much in shock you are until you start recovering," she said, adding that she considers herself much more fortunate than her landlords, who lived above her former shop. "When I compare what I lost to what they have lost, they had lost so much more."

While her new store has a new name, its sign incorporates a yellow triangle with "42" inside, a nod to Marker 42, which was next to her old site. The nautical-themed marker was owned by her previous landlord and displayed from the second-floor railing on his building. "That's where Harborwalk Books still lives on," she added.

Carlson said some hoping to rebuild have been frustrated by the delay, but even seeing the rubble getting hauled off will be bittersweet.

"I'm not sure which will be worse: seeing the rubble or seeing a big hole there once the rubble is gone," she said. "The big hole could be worse."

What's next

The last and perhaps most challenging part of the city's recovery will be figuring out what should be built in the gap the fire created.

The eight parcels are privately owned, but the city also has an interest in what happens on the site, Scoville said.

Wednesday, a group of city officials, property owners and other businesses are expected to review qualifications from three firms, LS3P Associates, Steve Goggans & Associates, and Tych & Walker Architects, interested in working with property owners to decide what could - and should - be built.

Scoville said the new building will have to meet modern codes, including flood regulations, and it also must pass muster with the city's Architectural Review Board. Also, whatever is built will have to make economic sense to the owners and those who loan them money.

That could force a bigger development than the series of two- to three-story buildings that were burned up.

"You can't expect them to build something there where the cash flow is so low they can't make the mortgage payments," he said, "so we might have to increase the density through condominiums, a hotel or something like that. That might require an additional story or two. Will that be compatible with the streetscape?"

Meanwhile, the neighboring businesses also have a stake in what goes back in, especially how parking will be handled there.

The only thing certain is that whatever takes shape in the 700 block of Front Street will have a big impact on the city for the next century or longer.

"You don't want to get too democratic in these sort of things because if you try to please everybody, you'll please nobody," Scoville said. "It will be a very interesting process."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.