One tipped-over candle is all it would take to wipe out more than 100 years of Lawrence history.
That's something to think about, Fire Marshal Rich Barr says, as city commissioners this summer discuss whether to spend public money to help downtown businesses install sprinkler systems.
"You could lose a lot of historic structures with just one fire," Barr said. "You might be able to rebuild, but they won't look the same."
City commissioners earlier this month said they were well aware of that. At a study session to discuss the 2007 city budget, commissioners said they wanted to consider adding a program that would rebate at least a portion of a business' cost to install a sprinkler system, which often can be around $20,000 for a typical downtown building.
Several commissioners at the April 6 meeting admitted having fears that a fire could start in one downtown building and spread to neighboring structures - many of them built in the mid-1800s - much like what happened during a fire last year in Fort Scott. That fire destroyed about 10 buildings and significantly damaged at least five others.
Such a fire in Lawrence would wipe out history and a significant portion of the city's retail trade industry, Commissioner Sue Hack said.
"If something like that happens here, we are in terrible trouble," Hack said.
The program that Interim City Manager David Corliss is proposing still lacks key details, but its premise is simple. Commissioners would start setting aside money to fund a rebate program for downtown building owners who install a sprinkler system.
What percentage of the total cost should be rebated, what guidelines a business would have to meet and how much money the city would set aside each year all would need to be determined.
The basic idea, though, sounded appealing to downtown business owners.
Clay Belcher, an owner of Signs of Life, already has a sprinkler system in his building at 722 Mass. He said he wouldn't have a problem with the city stepping in to help some building owners who haven't been able to install sprinklers.
"I think it is a legitimate concern for government," Belcher said.