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Miracle Mile Businesses Scramble to Move Out after Code Violations

STOCKTON -- It's an unexpected and unwanted moving day for nine businesses on Stockton's Miracle Mile, each told on Wednesday they had two days to shut down and move out.

"It's kinda like a mass exodus today," Deedee Sbragia said. She is helping pack up her son's restaurant, Centrale.

She says the fire inspectors told them about their violations such as exposed patio wiring and they'd planned to fix those problems but had no idea that the building itself is, according to the city, a tragedy waiting to happen.

"If you are in a building such as this and it has structural failure, you are trapped," city spokesperson Connie Cochran said. "You could die."

The property at 1825 Pacific Avenue, the old Empire theater, houses everything from eateries to hair salons to a pilates studio. The community holds it dear enough that random neighbors came to help business owners move.

"This block right here is significant," neighbor Ianthe Chase said. "This is like the hub of our little art world."

But the building also has violations going back five years. According to the city, the property owner Chris "Kit" Bennitt had agreed to fix violations like in accessible exits, and extensive use of extension cords. Sbragia says she had hints something was not right with her landlord.

"There were issues that we had here and every time we would call him, he would put us off or not take our calls," Sbragia said.

An inspection in August showed not only that Bennitt didn't fix the problems but he had non-permitted construction and had someone living in the building illegally.

"We couldn't allow his negligence to put his life and safety at risk," Cochran said.

But if conditions were so bad and a notice to vacate was imminent, and the property owner had been unresponsive, should the city have reached out to the tenants directly, giving them more of the heads up to protect their businesses and their lives?

"Yeah, we could have done things maybe a little bit different, we could. But I think the onus rides on the property owner," city fire Chief Erik Newman said.

FOX40 reached out to Bennitt and his attorney, but did not hear back.

City officials said Bennitt faces fines for the violations, but declined to say if criminal charges are a possibility.