Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The generator fire that sent smoke under multiple businesses on the Plaza’s east side on Sunday, Oct. 27 has left several retailers, service providers and office workers alike with few good options at the onset of the holiday season.
While from the outside the G Street buildings look the same as they did before the fire, everything north of the Big Blue Café, where the fire started, sustained smoke damage that rendered merchandise unsaleable and put numerous employees out of work.
A just-released report on the fire reveals both the specific cause of the fire and the estimated $1.5 million extent of the damage underneath the buildings. Read a summary of the report on page A6, and the entire document at madriverunion.com.
Businesses adapt as best they can
Businesses on the burned block were affected in different ways.
Plaza, at Eighth and G streets, was virtually unaffected. Moonrise Herbs experienced “a little smoke smell,” according to an employee, but didn’t miss a day of operations. Heartbead, located right next to Big Blue on the south side, was protected by a firewall and suffered only minor smoke damage and one lost day of sales.
Big Blue Café itself, being ground zero for the incident, is closed until further notice. Owner Jeff Martin-Kunkle said he is “still waiting on the multiple insurance inspectors,” with a comprehensive tour of the fire-ravaged restaurant to take place Dec. 3.
A GoFundMe page titled “Rebuild The Big Blue Cafe” with a fundraising goal of $5,000 has been established to benefit the scorched eatery.
Among the hardest-hit businesses was Solutions, located on Big Blue’s north side. The fire left its extensive clothing inventory smoke-damaged an unsaleable – a huge blow to the small shop.
“Our plan is to continue to work towards resolution,” said co-owner Lisa Brown. “We are currently without services, yellow tagged and the building interior is smoke damaged. We need guidance from the building owner’s and they are waiting on insurance to get to their next steps.”
Solutions held a multi-day “Survive the Big Blue Fire” sidewalk sale with drastic discounts on everything it was legally allowed to sell.
But with 12 insurance companies involved with the affected businesses, forward progress is slow. “We are forever grateful for the community that came out and supported us,” Brown said.
“Everybody’s reeling,” said co-owner Kevin Johnson last Friday outside the darkened business. “We would love to be back open by February.”
The Stillwater Sciences watershed analysis and restoration firm located upstairs has relocated to temporary offices on F Street, with hopes to return in February.
Eco-Groovy Deals remains open, but with much-diminished inventory in anticipation of its move across the Plaza to the spot at Eighth and H streets formerly occupied by Arcata Exchange. It is scheduled to open there on Feb. 1.
Eternal Apothic, located in the former Delilah’s Hair Salon spot, remains closed. Owner Alyson Osburn is working to spread awareness of the affected business’s plight with a Facebook page titled “Arcata Plaza Fire 2019.” She’s also designed a tote bag with sales to benefit the stricken businesses, and is coordinating its marketing with Arcata Main Street.
The Moore’s Sleep World mattress emporium remains closed. A sign on the door directs patrons to its other stores in McKinleyville, Eureka and Fortuna.
The Hot Knots women’s clothing store (and soon to be more than that) is something of a special case. Though closed because of the fire, co-owning sisters Andrea and Gayle Shackleton are leveraging the setback to reboot the entire operation.
Unlike most other affected stores, the Shackletons own the building that houses their shop. Located in the former offices of the Arcata Union newspaper at Ninth and G streets, Hot Knots had been open without power in the day of the fire due to the PSPS. But the owners thought that trying to go about business as usual was good for the Plaza retail community.
“We didn’t make a single sale, but it was the right thing to do,” Gayle said.
Being open, employees were on scene when the fire went down, and let the owners know that an incident was in progress. “The police are busting in the door, we have to get out,” a worker told them by phone. “We were lucky to know that happened.”
Smoke that traveled along the common crawlspace had traveled up from the fire scene and was seeping into the apparel on display. That triggered a massive evacuation of “batch after batch” of clothing to the business’s warehouse down at the Greenway Building.
Even as they were pulling inventory out of the building that Monday, a new shipment of 26 boxes of clothing arrive. They went straight to the warehouse and soon the store, which just celebrated its 2oth anniversary, was completely empty but for fixtures.
Most of the smoke damage was in the shop’s back room, limiting damage. An insurance company loss estimate is in the works, and will include ruined clothing, building damage and loss of income.
While “obviously distraught” by the turn of events, their spirits were lifted by a cheerful insurance adjuster who offered a positive reflection on the situation: “If this were my shop, I’d start painting and cleaning and move back in.”
And that’s just what they did, beginning the following Saturday. Family and friends have pitched in to repaint and restore the shop.
The renovation gives the Shackletons a chance to both innovate and re-do some legacy issues with the shop. Gayle said they were inexperienced when the store opened, and have had to live with some awkward situations since getting into retail and setting it all up two decades ago.
“We’re designers, and didn’t have that skill,” Gayle said. “Now we kinda know what we need.”
One new feature will be automated receipts – up until now, customers have been issued time-consuming hand receipts. In addition, the checkout counter will be relocated and new displays created.
Perhaps the most fundamental improvement is the addition of men’s clothing to the product line. More home decor will also be available.
“It’s been real barn raising and a great opportunity,” Gayle said. The new, improved Hot Knots re-opened on Black Friday with an after-Thanksgiving sale.
The city’s issues and involvement
The City of Arcata would like to see G Street on the Plaza restored to full strength, and is doing what it can to assist.
Said City Manager Karen Diemer: “The City Building Official, Nelson Membreno, is working closely with the property owner to identify the steps needed to initiate repairs. The initial step has been to hire a structural engineer to assess the support beams under the structure where the majority of the fire was contained. This initial assessment was completed within just a couple of days which allowed portions of the building to be occupied including both Eco Groovy and Solutions.”
While concerned about sales tax losses, Diemer said the first priority is supporting the stricken businesses. “The city worked with Main Street to support the businesses by putting up a few barricades blocking off the parking spaces immediately outside the stores for them to pull inventory out and continue to sell while they make repairs and/or air out the inside space,” she said.
Asked about sales tax impacts, Diemer said, “The city will look carefully at our sales tax reports for this quarter (which we won’t receive until June 2020) to see how sales compared to October 2018. This may give us some insight as to the effects of the Power Shut down and/or the fire but our reports do not give us day to day activity.”
With regard to ongoing safety issues, Diemer said, “The city does not have safety concerns regarding the restoration of the building after the fire. However we know that on all sides of the Plaza, because of the age of the construction there are buildings that are side-by-side or connected with no firewall separating them and we will continue to work with businesses as upgrades are made to improve their fire resiliency. The city would encourage all plaza businesses to install Fire Knox Boxes for the Fire Department’s use to ensure quick access, and I am very thankful to have a staffed Fire House just off the Plaza. The location of the Fire Department, the individuals that yelled and called to notify the fire staff and quick action of AFD personal on shift that evening truly saved several businesses within this building and potentially the block.”