Small businesses discuss growth since the Union Street fire

Austin Ambrose
December 2, 2016

Even as construction wire still blocks part of West Union Street, six local business owners and one active community member gathered to speak about the trials and lessons gained from the fire that occurred two years ago. Hosted by the Center for Entrepreneurship, “Rising from the Ashes” was the kickoff event for Global Entrepreneurship Week.

The panelists relayed their stories to more than 120 attendees, expressing different experiences and lessons. Although they spoke about revitalization, the fire-damaged buildings continue to be renovated.

The event was in Jackie O’s Public House, one of the businesses damaged in the fire. Their kitchen shut down for months of repair. However, they managed to create a full-service kitchen in the Brew Pub, which traditionally had a more limited menu than the Public House kitchen. The biggest loss was reducing the size of the kitchen staff due to no longer having kitchen service at full capacity.

Recognizing a need to assist the employees of the affected businesses, Peter Shooner and his wife started a GoFundMe account. They knew that people would want to a way to help, and they did. The account earned enough to distribute a total of $73,000 to help employees laid off during the holiday season, and hold some over until they were able to go back to work.

“Athens is an incredibly tight-knit community, even if it isn’t that big,” Shoonver said. “We knew there was a need and people out there willing to help, so we just connected the dots.”

Fortunately, Jackie O’s could still operate and didn’t lose much of their inventory. Similarly, Patrick Daugherty of Bobcat Rentals lost little because of their company doesn’t require customer traffic like many other businesses.

“We weren’t able to do all our services as promptly,” Daugherty said, “but we were able to get a phone and got back to work right away.”

However, this was not the case for all. Some started back up more quickly than others, but all panelists stressed the same point: Businesses can never have enough insurance. Although the insurance the businesses had was helpful, it still wasn’t enough to cover all expenses.

“Our insurance was able to cover most of the rebuild,” said Eric Gunn, owner of Union Bar & Grill. “However, my personal credit cards were smoking when it was finally done.”

The Union Bar & Grill lost almost its entire building. All that remained was the foundation on which the building was reconstructed. The original estimate for completion was six to eight months. But it took 18 months before the Union was finally back in commission.

Gunn commented that if he had known the rebuild would have taken so long, he may have chosen not to pursue the endeavor. That was a lot of time that he could have spent investing in other ventures, he said. However, the legacy of the Union has been preserved. The Union, unlike some other businesses, couldn’t move; its brand and essence comes from its location, so the only choice was to rebuild.

“We wanted to build something brand new, but still had the same feel that has been around for 100 plus years,” Gunn said.

Natasha Neal of Jack Neal Floral and Mary Cheadle of Uptown Dog T-shirts did relocate because they needed to get their businesses running. Uptown Dog moved across the street into the long-empty Lollipop storefront, while Jack Neal Floral moved to a space on Carpenter Street just up from the State Street intersection.

Jack Neal Floral is a family business, well established in the community with a strong customer base, but the fire changed all of that. They lost everything in the fire and had to start from scratch to rebuild. It was the first time the Neals had to start a company from the beginning, and they found there was much to learn. One of their biggest lessons was ensuring they have a backup system for their records.

Cheadle’s operation also is a family business. Moving across the street allowed Uptown Dog to reopen quickly, and the proceeds from Shooner’s fundraiser helped her employees in the short time before they could return to work. When her old location was ready, she had the option to go back.

“I wanted to add to the regrowth of the street and do something a little different,” Cheadle said. “I opened 10 West Clothing Company [a clothing boutique] to add a new business to the area.”

Another new venture grew out of the fire. Meredith Thompson made the jump to open her new business Honey after her former employer, the owners of Kismet, chose not to rebuild after the building was destroyed in the fire.

“I was really inspired by the community,” Thompson said. “I also missed working in Kismet so my husband and I decided to start out own business.”

Tragedy struck these businesses, but they persevered through the difficulties to rebuild, start over, or start new in a community that lost something. They truly rose from the ashes and are still rebuilding the street that offers so much to the community.

“There is a human element to this,” Daugherty said. “Even the outsiders involved with the businesses lost something. We have to be there for our neighbors.”

Ohio University’s participation in Global Entrepreneurship Week, which is celebrated in 160 countries, was supported by TechGROWTH Ohio and the Center for Entrepreneurship, a partnership between the College of Business and the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.