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Authentic Martial Arts school classes will continue in Largo after building burned

LARGO — With help from his family and students, martial arts instructor Ric Martin built his school on Missouri Avenue 25 years ago.

Early Sunday, fire tore through the attic of his Authentic Martial Arts school, leaving three gaping holes in the roof, one spanning a third of the main building.

Outside, charred tiles and self-defense class pamphlets littered the parking lot.

Inside, the 8,200-square-foot school "looks like a war zone," said Martin, 54, who walked through the building Sunday and Monday. "Two-thirds of the actual martial arts school is destroyed."

Over the weekend, more than a hundred people came by. Many of the kids, who showed up with their parents, burst into tears, Martin said.

"It was devastating to me personally," to see them, said Martin, who also owns Authentic Martial Arts in Seminole.

But Martin said his 250 students don't have to worry.

"We're not going anywhere," said Martin, an eighth-degree black belt in Okinawan Uechi-ryu, who was the first American to win the All Okinawan Karate Championship Series in 1994.

The master instructor, who has been teaching karate for nearly three decades, said he plans to rebuild.

It may take several months, a bit longer if the building needs to be entirely demolished, Martin said.

The school's summer camp classes have already been relocated to Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, south of the school. And by next week, Martin plans to resume the rest of his classes.

Monday, he met with the owner of the strip center across the street from his dojo to see if he could lease out space there. And it looks like a 2,500-square-foot storefront there is a good fit, he said.

Coincidentally, it's the exact storefront where he taught classes in the early 1980s, before he bought his current dojo at 780 N Missouri Ave.

Parent Amanda Finch, who stopped by the school Monday, was happy to hear that classes should be back on track next week.

Her son, Kevin Lay, 9, was "pretty upset" to learn about the fire and "was wondering when he was going to be able to go back" to class, said the Belleair woman.

The fire was apparently caused by a short in a wire from the dojo's neon sign. The first crew arrived at 1:16 a.m. Sunday, four minutes after the call came in, said Largo Fire Marshal Edward Mullins. The fire was out by about 2:40 a.m.

Martin, who lives with two of his daughters in a three-bedroom home on the school property, was with friends in Palm Harbor when he got a call from the Fire Department, he said. His teenage daughters were spending the night with their friends.

The power to his home was cut after the fire. For now, he and his teenage daughters are staying with Martin's oldest daughter, Erica Martin, 22, chief instructor at his Seminole school.

Fire officials haven't determined the dollar amount of damage to the property, which has a market value of $650,000, according to the Pinellas County property appraiser.

Martin, who has insurance for the property, said he has no idea what it will cost to rebuild the structure, which sits on stilts overlooking a pond.

Despite the tragedy, he's not overwhelmed, he said.

"We're going to take things one step at a time and pay attention to detail and try to make good, thoughtful decisions," he said.

The past couple of days, Martin's phone has been ringing almost nonstop. Friends, students and fellow martial artists from throughout the country have been wishing him well, Martin said.

"It makes you feel like what you spent 30 years of your life doing is making a difference," he said.

Times staff writer Douglas Clifford contributed to this report.

Authentic Martial Arts school classes will continue in Largo after building burned 08/17/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 17, 2009 8:29pm]
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