Archive for Monday, June 19, 2000

Community helped to ease fire recovery

June 19, 2000


More than two months after a fire destroyed an 80-year-old downtown warehouse, the last business affected by the afternoon blaze is preparing to reopen.

The six businesses along the corner of Ninth and Vermont have recovered to varying degrees, but all believe the support of customers and the community have turned a tragedy into a rebirth.

Fire alarm

Businesses affected by the April fire in downtown Lawrence include:Au Marche, 19 W. NinthHair Incorporated, 11 W. NinthSecond Chance Childrens store, 15 W. NinthSmoke Shop, 17 W. NinthWheatfields Bakery, 904 Vt.Weavers Department Store, 901 Mass.

Au Marche, 19 W. Ninth, lost more than 75 percent of its inventory and had to clean and replace much of its shelves and carpet, owner Lora Duguid said. It reopened after three weeks, in part due to community support.

"It was really neat, because the day after the fire, I started getting messages and e-mails from customers offering to help," Duguid said. "It's almost seeming better than before."

The April 5 fire began behind Wheatfields Bakery, 904 Vt., and spread quickly to a warehouse rented by Weaver's Department Store. As the building burned and the roof collapsed, the string of businesses along West Ninth were flooded with smoke and water, forcing five businesses to close.

The warehouse is owned by Mary Watson of Baldwin and was being used by Weaver's Department Store. Although the fire initially was attributed to careless smoking, no official cause has yet been determined.

Community effort

Wheatfields owner Chuck Magerl said he expects the bakery to reopen on June 27. The reconstruction necessary to make that happen continues seven days a week.

"We suffered massive smoke, heat and water damage throughout the entirety, as well as fire damage to the structure," Magerl said. "The smoke was the most insidious. It permeates any porous surface, so we had to gut the whole building and rebuild the air-conditioning system."

Despite the challenge of rebuilding the four-year-old business, Magerl said the sympathy and advice of downtown business owners has helped ease the process. Some, such as Milton's and the Community Mercantile, donated food to workers remodeling the bakery.

"There's been wonderful support," Magerl said. "We've had some sense of empathy from businesses that have suffered similar incidents, like Sunflower. I think if there's a positive, it is just the response from other businesses that have come through in ways they didn't have to."

The fire began behind Wheatfields' back door and consumed a shed that stored the firewood used in the brick oven to bake bread. Ironically, Magerl said, none of the firewood burned, but the wood structure helped fuel the fire.

"We're now storing the firewood between the walk-in (refrigerators). It will now be surrounded by concrete and metal, rather than wood," Magerl said.

The final estimates are still being worked out, but Magerl said he expects the cost of rebuilding will exceed $250,000.

Second Chance Children's store, 15 W. Ninth, lost most of its clothing stocks from the smoke wafting from the burning warehouse behind it. Owner Amy Laughlin said she was touched by the outpouring of help as well.

Local Girl Scouts washed some of the baby clothing and salvaged what they could. Customers also donated clothes, hangers and other supplies.

"If you have to have a tragedy, Lawrence is the place to do it," Laughlin said.

Although the store closed for a month after the fire and the recovery has cost more than $15,000, Laughlin is happy to be open again.

Recovering slowly

Tracy Meisenheimer was able to keep her Hair Incorporated customers happy after the fire by relocating to her father's salon, Hillcrest Styling Center, for five weeks.

"We didn't miss a beat as far as the customers, but we had water damage," Meisenheimer said. "I'm still having problems when it rains. I have a waterfall come down the wall. We're getting ready to remodel."

She counts herself lucky to be able to continue to operate even as the building was scarred by the fire.

"It seemed my life was getting dull, then here comes the fire," she laughed.

Jonathan Levine said his Smoke Shop, 17 W. Ninth, also lost 75 percent of his cigar and tobacco inventory, but was the first to reopen, just two weeks after the fire.

"I have pretty much everything back now. It took a few weeks, and people were pretty understanding," Levine said.

Weaver's, 901 Mass., suffered the least in terms of having to close down. Although the department store lost fixtures, mannequins and display decorations in the warehouse, it lost little merchandise and was able to open the next day. No smoke infiltrated the corner building.

"I've been putting away records in a crawl space," Vice President Earl Reineman said. "Now the warehouse is gone, we've gotten very creative. We were very lucky. The people I feel sorry for is the businesses behind us. "

Magerl, who also owns Free State Brewing Company, said he still feels ill when he hears fire engines coming down Vermont. He said he's happy the community has helped to ease the burden of rebuilding a popular business from scratch.

"That sense of small town caring and support is easy to lose sight of," Magerl said. "It's wonderful to see that spirit here."

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