Life after blaze on Main Street
With the smell of smoke still in the air on Main Street, Tisbury town officials, business owners, and residents rolled up their sleeves and started talking about what to do next after the July 4 fire that destroyed the Cafe Moxie and badly damaged the Bunch of Grapes bookstore.
The Tisbury selectmen held two emergency meetings at the Katharine Cornell Theatre within a few days of the fire. At the first meeting on the morning of July 5, the selectmen made a crucial decision to go forward with Tisbury's street fair on July 8 to show that the town's downtown businesses remain viable. A second meeting on July 7 focused on formulating a plan for the town to deal with the fire's aftermath.
The July 5 meeting began with discussion about cleanup and restoration efforts between the selectmen, town officials, Cafe Moxie owner and chef Austin Racine, his partner Kristina Yekel, and Paul Currier, the building's owner.
Ann Nelson, the owner of the Bunch of Grapes bookstore building, was unable to attend. Her son Jon, who owns the business, had moved with his family only a few days before the fire to a new home in Texas.
Offering condolences to the owners and families associated with both businesses, Selectman Chairman Denys Wortman told them, "We're here to do whatever we can to help, to figure out what we can do to help."
He and selectmen Tristan Israel and Jeff Kristal thanked and praised Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling and his department for their hard work in fighting the fire, as well as the Oak Bluffs and Edgartown fire departments, who provided mutual aid.
"Everything worked well. Oak Bluffs and Edgartown brought equipment we didn't have," Chief Schilling said. He and the selectmen also remarked on the generous outpouring of support from the community.
"It was a team-effort, Island-wide," Chief Schilling said. "I wouldn't live anywhere else, given the way this Island community responds. The quality of life here was demonstrated yesterday."
Photo by Danielle Zerbonne
During the fire, "businesses stepped up all over town," Chief Schilling said. "Food and drinks were showing up unsolicited, left and right. We were not for lack of anything - we had the resources to keep us on task."
Chief Schilling said that Assistant Fire Chief James Rogers, a state-certified fire investigator, is conducting the department's investigation of the fire. In addition, multiple insurance companies that are involved require their own investigations, which will impact how quickly the site may be cleaned up.
"It could be a matter of days or a matter of weeks," Chief Schilling warned. "We want to make sure the board and the public is aware we don't have control over this situation." A dumpster currently located in front of Cafe Moxie must remain in place, as well as debris on the sidewalk, until insurance investigators agree to its removal, he explained.
In addition to the selectmen's concern about helping the business owners affected by the fire, Mr. Israel said, "These two places have an enormous impact on business in the town, let alone an impact on all of the businesses on one of their busiest holidays, the Fourth of July."
The selectmen said they made calls on July 4 to state Rep. Eric Turkington and state Sen. Robert O'Leary to ask about possible economic aid from the state for Tisbury. Although Mr. Turkington was unable to attend last Saturday's meeting, he and Mr. Wortman made arrangements for a conference call.
Photo by Ralph Stewart
Mr. Wortman called Mr. Turkington at 9:15 am during the meeting. He explained that the loss of the cafe and bookstore affects other businesses in town, and asked if Mr. Turkington had any thoughts about state funds that might be available.
Mr. Wortman confirmed that the cafe and bookstore are insured, and Mr. Turkington said he would look into the possibility of loans and consult with state officials about what else might be available.
And the selectmen agreed to ask town administrator John Bugbee to approach Senators John F. Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, seeking whatever assistance may be available.
Moving ahead on Monday
About 30 people attended a second meeting on July 7, including several Tisbury business owners as well as Mr. Racine, Ms. Yekel, Ms. Nelson, and Mr. Currier.
"We're here for ideas we can do for the support of businesses in town, not only those lost, but all of them," Mr. Wortman began.
The selectmen asked for advice from Susan and Sherm Goldstein, co-owners of the Mansion House Inn, at the Beach Street corner of Main Street, based on their experiences after a fire destroyed their building on Dec. 15, 2001.
Mr. Goldstein said they would be happy to meet with anyone affected by the fire to share their knowledge, especially those who suffered a direct loss. He encouraged the selectmen to get in touch with 10th District Congressman William Delahunt and his aide, Mark Forrest, who were the most helpful after the Mansion House fire. "Their work in getting Tisbury designated a Federal economic disaster area - as dramatic and real as that is - would be a huge, major step in the rebuilding of these enterprises, as well as the revitalization of the entire town," Mr. Goldstein said.
The designation allows for application to the Small Business Administration (SBA) for disaster relief loans at 4 percent interest for a term of 20 years, Mr. Goldstein explained. SBA disaster relief specialists were quick to respond, efficient, and empathetic, he said.
Other than expediting permits, Mr. Goldstein said there is little the town can do. However, anything that makes the town more welcoming to tourists will be a help to the business community, he added.
Providing an update, Chief Schilling said insurance investigators were due to arrive Wednesday. Until then, they had requested 24-hour police security at the fire site, for which they would pay.
As another protective measure at the site, the selectmen approved a proposal from department of public works (DPW) director Fred LaPiana to erect an 8-ft. tall plywood fence in front of Cafe Moxie, along with a pedestrian path protected from street traffic by barriers, before the street fair.
In addition to concerns about the long-term effects of the fire on the cafe and bookstore, Mr. Israel said, "The other purpose of this meeting is to pick people's brains for ideas as to what we might be able to do to lessen the blow of this fire."
Ideas from business owners ranged from creating better signage downtown, holding additional summer Main Street events, and offering a scavenger hunt among stores. Mr. Israel recommended setting up a task force to coalesce ideas and asks for volunteers to contact the selectmen. Mr. Kristal offered to work on ideas for revitalizing Main Street with the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce (MVCOC) and Tisbury Business Association (TBA), since he has worked with both organizations in the past in his role as a Vineyard Haven inn owner.
Turning to Mr. Racine and Ms. Yekel, Mr. Wortman asked, "What would help you most right now?"
"It's tough to say at this point - I'm not sure what we can ask for at this time, except to take one day at a time," Mr. Racine said. "We're going to do the street fair, and go forward from there. A lot of our regulars have reached out to us with catering options to keep the team together until there's a further plan for rebuilding."
Ms. Nelson announced that her son Jon was on his way back to the Island. She asked Steve Fischer of Chilmark, a former Bunch of Grapes employee who is now the executive director of the New England Independent Booksellers Association, to recap phone calls with Mr. Nelson over the weekend.
"In the course of our conversations, the one thing he really wanted me to express at this meeting is that he has a 110 percent intention to reconstruct the Bunch of Grapes," Mr. Fischer said.
Although Mr. Nelson received a verbal description of the fire and viewed videos from Plum TV, Mr. Fischer said, "I think until he really lands and gets here, has a conversation with his insurance adjustor, and hears some on the ground facts, there's really not much he can do, other than to say his intention is to get back up and running."
"I'm happy to hear that's how he feels - it's a real anchor store in town," Mr. Wortman said.
"It's the heart and soul of Martha's Vineyard, not just the town," said Mr. Fischer.
Mr. Wortman asked Ms. Nelson if the bookstore's inventory was definitely a total loss. She said she went inside the building Friday afternoon, aided by Chief Schilling. "And what I initially saw is basically I've got a gutted building," she described. "I cannot comment anymore - I have to wait for the insurance people."
Business community responds
This week, many business owners continued to offer whatever support they could think of. Ben Hall offered office space. Bowl and Board owners Garry and Maria Metters offered storage space. ArtCliff owner Gina Stanley offered Mr. Racine the use of her restaurant's kitchen for preparing food for the street fair and for catering jobs he may do in the future.
In a follow-up to Monday's meeting, Mr. Kristal met with TBA and MVCOC representatives the next day. As a first order of business, to put forward a positive message, they came up with a new slogan, "Vineyard Haven...always open."
In addition, the group set a short-term goal of improving the town's signage and made tentative plans to hold a community celebration event on Main Street on August 17.
When asked what she sees as her role, TBA president Leslie Hewson said, "I feel that my job is to keep people informed and rein in the manic enthusiasm by helping temper it with the idea we've got to be in this for the long haul." She added, "It's going to be a journey, and sometimes there is a lot of support at the beginning. I want to harness that support and space it out."
Mr. Kristal said the TBA also will help coordinate a town thank-you event in September for all those who helped during the fire.
The Tisbury selectmen collected donations for the cafe and bookstore owners at the street fair Tuesday night, as did Doug Johnson, owner of Kennedy Studios. Mr. Wortman said the two collections amounted to about $2,300, which was turned in to Tisbury treasurer Tim McLean.
Mr. Wortman said the selectmen have not made a formal plan on what to do with the money yet. They are considering asking the TBA to handle the funds and disperse them, he said.