Business Owners Discuss Future After Fire And Help For Employees

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We will rebuild.

That was the general consensus of a meeting of business owners affected by the Union Street fire that took place in Athens early Sunday morning. The meeting, held at Arts/West on West State Street on Monday night, was to open the doors to new business opportunities and ways to help employees who are without jobs until the businesses can bounce back.

"We have 12 people unemployed who aren't just my employees but they're also my friends," said Eric Gunn, owner of The Union Bar and Grill.

All of the buildings suffered severe damage after fire ravaged the block of Union Street at about 4 a.m. Sunday. Six fire departments and about 60 firefighters were called in to battle the blaze, which is reported to have started behind the building that housed Kismet, according to officials.

On Monday, though, employers and community members already had ideas as to where the employees could go while they waited to see the fate of their current jobs at Jackie O's Pub and Brewery, The Union, Kismet and Jack Neal Floral.

"GoodFella's (Pizza) is going to hire three people, they've already said," said Alli Maloney, a representative from Jackie O's.

The community members present at the meeting also got to hear from Pete Shooner, who started a fundraising account on Go Fund Me to bring in money for employees of the Union Street businesses. As of 9 a.m. Tuesday, the fund had raised more than $23,000 and raised the goal to $40,000.

When Shooner started the fund it had a goal of $10,000, but he said he would raise the goal and extend the time of the fundraiser if needed. He met the original goal in less than 12 hours.

Jocelyn Williams, owner of Kismet, the clothing store in the middle of the block of buildings that caught fire, said she was looking for a new location in Athens if business owners knew of open places, but also said she had other stores that might be able to house Athens employees for now.

The owner of Uptown Dog, Mary Cheadle, offered an opportunity to anyone with screenprinting skills at her business.

But her business was also affected by the fire, so the work Uptown Dog is doing is now from homes and alternate spaces, she said. When the rear of Jack Neal Floral collapsed, it fell onto the back room of her building, Cheadle said.

"That's where we did our embroidery, our heat pressing, and where we kept a lot of our inventory," Cheadle said, adding that she would find out Tuesday whether she would have to relocate the entire business.

The businesses were eager to do whatever it took to get the storied businesses on the block back on track. Art Oestrike, owner of Jackie O's said while the business was without a kitchen, the possibility of a food truck was being considered.

"We have to do something," Oestrike said.

Musician Mike Flynn asked for ideas in putting together a community music festival, with the proceeds to benefit the rebuild. He said he has already received an offer of a January date to use Templeton-Blackburn Memorial Auditorium, but he wants to include as many venues as possible.

"It would be nice to do a full weekend," Flynn said. "We have a great music community here … I want to make it as local as possible."

Several business owners offered space and venues to sell wristbands for the show, including Jess Kopelwitz of The Fluff restaurant and Oestrike offered the pub side of Jackie O's.

Cheadle offered the idea of a festival t-shirt as well to bring in even more money.

The music festival would be in addition to another benefit scheduled to help rebuild The Union. Although plans are still being decided, The Rise of the Phoenix concert is scheduled for Dec. 18 at Casa Nueva, where Jorma Kaukonen of Fur Peace Ranch has offered to play a set, according to the event's Facebook page.

The future of their buildings is up in the air until structural integrity tests and fire investigations are completed, but like the other business owners in the room, Gunn said he already has his sights set on bringing back the glory of The Union.

"This is an Athens institution," Gunn said. "When I came to The Union, I finally felt like I was with my own kind, so … this is very personal for me."

Gunn was encouraged by the amount of support he had been receiving and the discussions at the meeting. Moving to a different location or holding back on rebuilding was not an option, he said.

"We're committed to reopening and we're going to throw one hell of a party when it opens back up," Gunn said.