By Rochelle Wilkerson - Californian staff writer
The question was legitimate "What can you do," one skeptic asked Bakersfield contractor Willie Parker Sr. "What can you do with a big old building like that?" Graffiti was scrawled about the boarded-windows of the building. Dust had settled everywhere, but mainly piled on the floor like a thick blanket. Years of abandonment left the aging an empty shell with most of the roof sagging inside. "You were scared to walk in here because you thought everything was going to fall out," said Parker, who initially was unconvinced himself when his partner Harold Tapley, pitched the idea. Last June the 3,000 square foot property at fourth and L streets was a $60,000 investment, but not a pretty sight. It is now. After months of work. Some say it's transformation from a dilapidated eyesore to a six-suite commercial show-piece instills pride for south-central Bakersfield residents in the area. Businesses east of Chester Avenue are few and far between, according to 1st Ward Councilman Lynn Edwards. "I was pleased that we brought some commercial development into the area," Edwards said. "I hope it will attract other commercial firms into our community and invest in it. The city got more dollar value out of the product. And we got a man who is from the neighborhood, formed his business in the area and is remaining in it." Parker, 52, Tapley, 63, and their crew gutted the the interior, reroofed the structure to avoid the leaky mess that was prevalent during the rainy season, and color coated the the outside tan, ridding the schoolhouse green from its walls. Tan carpet lines the floors throughout the building that is divided into two sections. Parker and Tapley took the front office as the headquarters of H.W. Parley Enterprises. The rear, with a separate entrance and two waiting areas, has six suites, all leased but , they said. The space where the fire trucks parked is now a storage area. A kitchen also has been added. All in all, the look is business-like that contrasts with a homelike atmosphere. Plans are in the works to open a drive-through fast food take out service adjacent to the east side of the structure - "Uncle Lee's Old Fire Station Barbecue." The pit already is constructed outside near one of the parking areas and the kitchen for Lee Clark to do what he does best, Parker said. "He is my wife's uncle. And I always told him, if we ever find a place, we are going to open you a business. He has spent 50 years making barbecue," he said of Clark, who is in his 70s.
During the transition the partners met with a deep pit of obstacles. Family members and most city officials doubted whether anything positive would come from the venture. I had been on the market twice, but the bids were so low that Edwards asked the council to throw out the bids and rebid it. Another closed fire station on east Brundage Avenue combined with the one on Fourth Street previously garnered only $45,000 for the two he said. The process of cleaning and picking up the rubble in and around the place began almost immediately after they won the bid. Parker and Tapley also sought ways to help the neighborhood by providing summer employment for a few youths - their first jobs. This past summer on rotating shifts, a number of teen-age boys were part of the crew to rehabilitate the former station. Parker recalls seeing the smiles across their faces after receiving their first and subsequent pay checks. "Some are now calling to see if they will work for us this summer," Parker said. "That is positive for them. They are thinking about working instead of running in the streets. "People walk by everyday and some will visit. They really like what we've done to the business and it makes us feel good."