North San Marco Businesses bounce back after Irma

North San Marco Businesses bounce back after Irma
The European Street Café was a total loss due to the floodwaters of Hurricane Irma.

Like most of the business owners on San Marco Boulevard, Beth Handline, owner of Dance Trance, had a thriving enterprise on that road until Hurricane Irma came calling.

The savagery of the hurricane’s winds and the St. Johns River’s resulting storm surge took the city by surprise, especially when it pushed an epic amount of water into North San Marco’s commercial district at levels not seen since 1846. The area surrounding San Marco Boulevard became a river with water between four and six feet deep, annihilating most businesses lining the street from I-95 to the cusp of San Marco Square.

The floodwaters were high at the corner of Cedar Street and San Marco Boulevard where the Hollingsworth Showroom stands.

The floodwaters were high at the corner of Cedar Street and San Marco Boulevard where the Hollingsworth Showroom stands.

“It was insane. I couldn’t believe it. It was such a disaster,” said Handline, who had no flood insurance and sustained a $100,000 loss when a three- to five-foot lake crept inside her storefront. “If you had anything, you lost it unless it was hanging from the ceiling. Ours had been the ultimate dance studio,” she continued. “It had the best flooring, best lighting, and best sound system around. We had put a ton of money into it, and it was really running well. We were here for 10 years, so it was like losing our baby,” she said, noting that to replace the dance floor would cost $20,000 alone.

Handline ultimately decided to move her business to 100 N. Laura St. on the second floor of the CenterState Bank building, within Anytime Fitness, and her customers now receive use of the fitness’s gym 24/7 when they purchase a dance package.

Handline was not the only business owner to decide to either move out of San Marco or close entirely. All along San Marco Boulevard “For Rent” signs have popped up in storefronts where small enterprises once stood.

Hanger Prosthetics also decided to move permanently after its building was declared a “total loss,” said employee Cheri McLaurin. It has relocated to 3728 Philips Hwy.

Brunet-Garcia Advertising, formerly located on Hendricks Avenue, has moved temporarily to 25 N. Market St., while it prepares for a permanent move to 5 Points, said William Cesery, president of Cesery Properties and the company’s former landlord. It was a move they had planned before the storm occurred, he said.

Meanwhile, Kitchen on San Marco, a popular eatery on the corner of San Marco Boulevard and Children’s Way, is completely out of business.

“It is with regret that we confirm the closure of Kitchen on San Marco – A Gastropub. Flooding by Hurricane Irma caused such extensive damage that the difficult decision was made to cease operations. We are grateful to our loyal patrons and supporters who welcomed us warmly when we opened in 2015. If an opportunity arises for a return to the market, we would welcome it,” the company announced on its Facebook page.

Taneka Harris, owner/operator of Davis & Company Hair Salon at 1545 San Marco Blvd., also closed her shop and now works as a hair stylist for her friend at Abliss Upscale Styling Studio on St. Augustine Road.

“My salon was destroyed by four feet of water,” Harris said. “I had invested my own funds in the business and didn’t want to go into debt to open it again,” she said, estimating her personal loss at $200,000.

“Everything was damaged with mold and mildew on my furniture,” said Harris, adding that although she had a liability policy, she did not have specific flood insurance and did not understand that floods and personal property were not covered.

“My business was destroyed, but I still have a home to go to. A lot of people were worse off,” she said.

Harris’ loss was, in a way, Beer:30’s gain. Located next door, the craft beer concession endured 20 inches of water inside, but incurred very little damage compared to other businesses and plans to eventually expand into the Davis & Company space, said Jeff Burns, owner.

“We only lost two cases of beer. Beer products are reasonably waterproof,” he said, noting his shop reopened twice, Sept. 14 and 19, after being closed for three days in between. Although Beer:30 had no flood insurance, the damage was “not outrageously expensive,” he said, estimating his loss at $7,000.

However other businesses, which also plan to eventually reopen, were not so lucky. With the exception being Flame Broiler, a Korean restaurant which began serving customers again Oct. 13, most other North San Marco eateries sustained heavy damage and were forced to gut their properties.

“The damage to Bistro AIX was catastrophic,” said Fraser Burns, a partner in the Forking Amazing Restaurant Company that owns the iconic dining establishment. “The entire restaurant was under about four feet of water and every aspect of the restaurant was affected. It was an entire loss. Our Bistro AIX team and our dedicated contractors have been working hard to get us reopened.” In fact, the water was so deep, a flounder was found swimming in the parking lot, said Cesery, who owns the Bistro AIX building.

Dance Trance, a fixture on San Marco Boulevard, decided to move downtown after Hurricane Irma’s floodwaters destroyed its dance studio.

Dance Trance, a fixture on San Marco Boulevard, decided to move downtown after Hurricane Irma’s floodwaters destroyed its dance studio.

“All our furniture was affected, but thankfully we were able to salvage most of it. Many of the iconic Italian gothic dining room chairs were damaged, but we decided to rebuild and refurbish them and bring them back to life instead of buying new chairs. These iconic chairs are part of the long history of Bistro AIX, so we did not want to just replace them. All the booths, tables, and other furniture had to be 100 percent refurbished or replaced,” Burns said, adding although the cost of the damage is still being calculated, including repairs to the building, equipment replacement, furniture repair, funds to maintain staff and hire new employees as well as replace lost inventory, the loss could total a whopping $700,000.

“The landlord did have flood insurance on the building, which is helping to replace some of the building items like walls and floors, but our restaurant insurance policy had flood exclusions so that all the equipment and furniture that are not part of the building were not covered,” he said. “Under our policy, the repair and replacement of these items will be paid out of pocket by the owners.” Bistro AIX plans to hold a grand re-opening during the first or second week of December, Burns said.

In contrast, European Street Café, which was also wrecked in the storm, plans to reopen in January 2018, said owner Andrew Zarka. “The damage was devastating. We took on two to two-and-a-half feet of water throughout the whole building. It was a total loss,” he said, noting that although he has flood insurance, the loss of sales by being closed for four months could easily total $500,000.

Being forced to gut the interior has provided the opportunity to update the appearance of the restaurant, Zarka said. “There will be a color change, and we will add some community tables. It will look different when you come in, but it will still have the same European Street feel,” he said.

Although it is still closed, Vino Pizza is sporting a sign in its window saying it plans to reopen, said Cesery, whose business is nearby. Owners of the popular pizzeria could not be reached for comment by The Resident.

Other businesses that sustained heavy water damage and reopened within three to seven weeks were Rusted, a Vintage Market; Painting with a Twist; ReMax Realty; Stephen E. Hutchins Architects; San Marco Animal Hospital, and Hollingsworth Showroom.

With no flood insurance, the owners of Rusted, a Vintage Market were forced to pay $3,000 to have its interior restored and the landlord took care of building restoration, said owner Jeanne Kurst. Each individual vendor in the antique store was forced to take care of their own losses, she said, adding that the flood gave her the opportunity to paint the store in a lighter color and add a larger check-out area with colorful display cubbies nearby. “We had to put a large percentage of everything in the shop in the dumpster,” said Wanda Aills, a vendor.

Painting with a Twist held a class in its newly renovated Private Party Bungalow on Oct. 18 and held its “grand re-opening” Oct. 27 in its upgraded main studio space.

The shop set up a “YouCaring” page to solicit donations since it did not have flood insurance, said owner Geri Bernard, noting that she has upgraded her studio so it has a “better flow” when you walk in the door and will also include some new additions, which will be ready at the end of the year.

Todd Addicott, broker of ReMax Realty, which opened Oct. 30, also had no flood insurance and estimated his losses at $15,000. ReMax lost all its furniture and computers and was especially hurt with the destruction of its records and files, he said, adding he had “reservations” about moving back into the building after the flood. “I was looking for a new location, but the expense was greater and financially I didn’t want to do it,” he said.

Also with no flood insurance was San Marco Animal Hospital, which was forced to replace an X-ray machine, computers, furniture, and its front desk, sustaining a loss close to $100,000, said Ashley Miller, a vet tech. The animal hospital opened fairly quickly, serving customers during its renovation but waited several more weeks before performing surgeries, she said.

Although it lost drywall and flooring, as well as interior design inventory, which was stored on its first floor, Stephen E. Hutchins Architects’ main problem was a lack of power after the storm. “Our downstairs was finished Nov. 1,” said Teresa Shepard, office manager, noting her firm was able to work with generators on the second floor for four days until power was restored.

Deborah Hyers, a sales team member at Hollingsworth Showroom, said her business may have been the “luckiest” on the street. Even though the water had not receded and toilets and fiberglass bathtubs were floating in four to five feet of water, employees, customers, and plumbers from San Marco’s Turner Plumbing, a family business owned by relatives of Hollingsworth owner Worth Turner, showed up to empty the entire building the day after the hurricane, she said.

“We even had a client show up with a crowbar,” Hyers said, adding that Hugo Interiors offered warehouse space to store larger items, while smaller salvaged pieces were placed on the building’s second floor.

Hollingsworth’s staff worked from home for over a month while the building was gutted and refurbished. The showroom was fully restored and opened Oct. 16, Hyers said, noting the worst part was losing the company’s internet server.

“The whole neighborhood pitched in. Three crews worked round the clock to get us back up. We even had our insurance agent show up to help us. The vendors were great about replacing product. We had flood insurance, but it was still a tremendous loss, because we were hit with a ton of out-of-pocket expenses,” she said.

As one of the larger landlords in the area, Cesery said many of his residential rentals, including Cedar Street Apartments, two residences on Larue Street, and his San Marco Boulevard headquarters sustained major damage, while his commercial space on Hendricks Avenue, which includes High Tide Burrito and Industry West, were barely touched. The Hendrick’s properties were able to open the next day because they only had a couple of inches of water and his tenants were able to “squeegee” it off the floors, he said.

Fully insured, Cesery said he has filed five major flood insurance claims to cover nearly $650,000 worth of damage. He also relocated most of his Larue and Cedar Street tenants to a building he owns in Springfield in the interim. The first set of Cedar Street apartments will be refurbished by Dec. 1, and by Dec. 15 the balance of his tenants will be able to move back in, he said.

Although their business, Pretty Paws Pet Grooming, was one of the only businesses to stay high and dry throughout the ordeal, owner Ron Huffman said he was still thinking about moving when his lease is up in July. He has been in business for 27 years on San Marco Boulevard.

Toilets and bathtubs were floating in the Hollingsworth Showroom during the flood.

Toilets and bathtubs were floating in the Hollingsworth Showroom during the flood.

“We were the only business that didn’t flood at all. Our building is four to five feet higher than the street,” Huffman said. “There were airboats going up and down the street rescuing people after the storm. I thought for sure we’d be underwater, and that there was no way we’d survive this one.”

The flood’s effect on neighboring businesses is what concerns Huffman. “Business-wise, the street is dead,” he said, adding that the city’s decision to detour traffic in November to install a crosswalk and pedestrian signal haven’t helped. “Digging up the street at this time is absolutely stupid,” he said. “They are closing the street as we come into the Christmas holiday, and there is no pedestrian traffic anyway. They have no consideration of what this area needs.”

Zarka was also concerned about the crosswalk, which will be built in front of European Street Café. He said when San Marco Square was built, the city took away several on-street parking spaces from his restaurant, which was a huge detriment to his business, in favor of putting in a wider sidewalk for outdoor seating. With the crosswalk, some of his outside tables will go away.

“They took away what they gave us. I’m disappointed in the way they configured the crosswalk. As part of my redesign, I planned to have four outdoor tables and now I only have room for two,” he said.

Cindy Platt of Grease Rags Clothing Company, which had minor damage and did not lose any merchandise, was also not happy with the crosswalk. The biggest problem is misleading signage, which cautions drivers that the road is closed, she said, noting the road-closed sign should indicate a detour or mention that at least one lane is open.

Platt said her “grand re-opening” in mid-October was “fantastic,” but sales afterwards have dwindled. “I had my best sales event ever that day, but since then it has been dreadfully slow. The business climate here is dead,” she said. “You don’t even see people out walking their dogs, and a lot of my nearby customers have not yet returned to the area. I think the city has the misconception that San Marco is broken now, even though we all are doing everything we can to demonstrate that is not the case.”

Although the 10,000-square-foot headquarters of OE&S office furniture was a total loss, Zim Boulos did not lose any business because he was fully insured and had carved out a “disaster recovery space” with 20 cubicles, phones, and computers in his Westside warehouse.

“I remember being a little kid during Hurricane Dora, standing in ankle-deep water with my father and seeing him be pretty upset,” he said, noting the last time his building flooded was in 1964.

To prevent water damage as the hurricane approached, Boulos took several precautions, including putting up plexiglass water barriers over the doors. However, he did not count on high water coming through the windows and certain holes in the structure, such as air conditioning ducts.

“Four feet of water will find a way through,” he said. Planning to give his business a whole new look with fresh paint and awnings, Boulos also is waterproofing the building per the advice of longtime San Marco resident Skip Alcorn, who suggested he trench around the foundation and apply Vulkem caulk and Elastomeric paint.

“I feel bad people aren’t able to come back because they don’t have insurance,” he said. “When you write a check for $15,000 each year for 30 straight years and don’t have a claim, you begin to question why you are doing it. Now you know.

“This experience shows how strong everybody in San Marco is,” he continued. “Everybody is helping each other, and we will be back, especially with Baptist MD Anderson opening next year. It will be the cornerstone of San Marco and will open at the right time to welcome everybody back. I see a bright future. The sun will shine again.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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