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Archive for Thursday, February 26, 1998

BUSINESS BOUNCES BACK FROM FIRE

February 26, 1998

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One year after a devastating fire, Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop reopens in its original location.

Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop triumphantly rises from the ashes today, reopening at the site that one year ago to the day was devastated by a downtown fire.

The store's floors, walls and ceilings have been restored. One side of the shop is graced by a modern chandelier and more open floor space than it had seen before.

The addition of skylights allows much more light to spill into the windows and around the building.

The plaster that once covered the walls is gone. In its place, original brick and stones reveal the damage from previous fires.

Also in place: a sprinkler system, employee shower, more staircases and an improved freight elevator.

It would have been hard to believe a year ago that the store could rise to its new and improved condition so soon. On Feb. 26, 1997, owners David and Susan Millstein watched as flames lit up their store.

Surrounded by former employees, friends and curious onlookers, the Millsteins were helpless to do anything as three fire departments worked to extinguish the fire. By the time the last ember died out, there was little left.

``My initial reaction was that it was so gruesome, so dark and so cold,'' Susan Millstein said. ``There was a pervasive soot smell, and by the time I got in things were starting to mildew.''

Fire departments from Lawrence, Overland Park and Lenexa worked throughout the night to put out the fire that gutted the outdoor and bike shop's homes at 802 and 804 Mass. and damaged a building on Eighth Street that the store owners were renovating. The fire caused more than $1 million damage.

The cause of the fire was never determined, though fire officials think combustible material stored near a water heater in the basement may be to blame. Lawrence Fire Marshal Rich Barr shortly after the blaze ruled out electrical causes or arson.

The Millstein family and store employees decided they had no choice but to rebuild.

``We didn't want to turn the building over to anyone else and we didn't want to see it torn down,'' Susan Millstein said. ``We had an obligation to the building, and the employees were so solid, and so confident that it could be done.''

Within four days of the fire, the store reopened down the street at 844 Mass. T-shirts hanging from a homemade rack were the only merchandise in the window that first day.

Sales at the new location started out slow but picked up speed. Within six months the store was operating at 85 percent of its business prior to the fire on floor space one-third the size of the original location.

``We put a lot of stuff in there,'' manager Chad Kemper said. ``I'm still scratching my head as to how we did it.''

Store employees worked alongside construction crews to complete the renovation in time for today's opening. Employees spent Tuesday and Wednesday moving merchandise from the 844 Mass. location to 802 and 804 Mass. Many worked 16-hour days to get the job done.

``Everybody's sore and grumpy and tired,'' Kemper said. ``We're opening no matter what.''

The sprinkler system will give the building a ``99 percent chance'' of survival should fire break out again, said Jim McSwain, director of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical.

The fire that destroyed the building at 804 Mass. was the third in its history. It was built in 1858 and burned during William Quantrill's raid in 1863 and again in 1904.

The Millsteins bought the building in 1972.

``There is a strong visceral grass-roots reaction to that building,'' said Steve Hansen, director of the Watkins Community Museum of History. ``It's clearly one of the most important buildings (downtown) because of the way people identify with it.''

The new construction has done little to change the feel of the store. The antique register is in place, the backpacks are lined up on the wall. Bicycles stand ready to be ridden.

``Everybody's been so supportive,'' Susan Millstein said. ``A lot of people have checked on the progress since we started, and a lot of people and businesses made donations.''

The hard work has paid off, and this morning when Millstein and her employees open the doors to customers, it will feel like it used to.

``This feels like home,'' Millstein said.

-- JL Watson's phone number is 832-7145. Her email is watson

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