Just days after a three-alarm fire destroyed or severely damaged about a fourth of Main Street businesses, Mount Airy town leaders and developers were meeting to discuss plans for a new mixed-use development to continue downtown revitalization efforts that the blaze derailed.
Developers Brian A. Gallagher and Rob Scranton are expected to bring before the town Planning Commission next month a development proposal that would involve first-floor retail and restaurants, brick walkways and second-floor condominiums around the site of Main Street's old train station.
Gallagher met with town officials and downtown business owners Thursday to unveil preliminary sketches for the project designed by the same architectural firm behind the new Rockville Town Square, said Dalia Schulman, president of the Mount Airy Main Street Association.
If current efforts to drill wells at the Gillis Falls site are successful, the mixed-use project, though discussed in the past, might have a better chance of gaining support, in the wake of the fire, Mayor Frank M. Johnson said.
"That would be a nice way to move forward on things," Johnson said. "It might have sparked a renewed interest."
Meanwhile, business owners and town activists debated last week how to best help the fire's victims, including the 14 people whose upstairs apartments were consumed and the seven businesses derailed.
The blaze early last Sunday caused more than $4 million in damage to Main Street, demolishing the recently renovated Bohn Building and nearly destroying the Watkins Building, which will be torn down with only its brick fa?ade preserved.
The popular Olde Towne Restaurant also sustained extensive smoke and water damage.
The town's fire fund had raised about $10,000 for the displaced families as of Thursday afternoon, Johnson said. Most of the tenants did not have renters' insurance on their apartments.
'A major disaster'
"All of us suffered a major blow," said Sarah Griffin, 30, who had insurance but escaped from her burning apartment, at 202 S. Main St., with just her cat. "This is a major disaster."
The relief fund, established for the victims of the Twin Arch Crossing townhouse fire in December, will remain intact for future emergencies, town officials said. But residents also said they wanted a way to aid displaced businesses.
"We have three levels of need in this fire," said Ellie Bonde, owner of the Blossom & Basket Boutique downtown who is involved in relief efforts. "Who is this fund supposed to benefit? Not just the families."
To fill that void, the Mount Airy Main Street Association (MAMSA) started an emergency fund for the businesses Thursday, Schulman said. She invited the public to bring those donations to her store, Knittin' Chicks, which sits on the old train station's parking lot, at 5 N. Main St.
"In the long run, MAMSA should have a long-term fund because we're all just start-up businesses," said Schulman, who opened her shop two years ago. "There is no safety net for anybody."
Perhaps the association will even start offering short-term no-interest loans to help downtown businesses, she said.
Schulman said the current wave of downtown revitalization really kicked off with Deja Vu, the trendy clothing boutique Joanne Sapp opened in the Watkins Building almost four years ago.
Since her store was destroyed, Sapp is temporarily working out of Knittin' Chicks, using Schulman's fax machine and a used computer that town officials found for her.
Just calling all her 100-some vendors to track down invoices, stop orders and cancel her phone service has kept Sapp busy this week. When her store reopens, she plans to keep a separate copy of every bill and document in a location outside the store.
Rob Scranton's sister-in-law, Stefanie Scranton, had co-owned and operated A Do or Dye spa in the Bohn Building for nearly two years. Numerous area salons have offered to donate their hair products and equipment to her business, Stefanie Scranton said.
"If you don't have a place to perform your service, then you don't have a paycheck," Scranton said. "I would do the same thing if the tables were turned."
Jim King, who owns the Miracles on Main Street salon just up the road, said he offered Scranton the temporary use of his space for her clients.
Rob Scranton, who owned the Bohn Building and much of the commercial property downtown, has announced plans to establish a temporary business park, setting up trailers for the displaced offices in the parking lot behind the old train station.
Some of the trees and brush on the edge of the lot, already slated to be cleared for a planned walking trail, will make space for the pods, town planner Kelly Ziad said.
Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who represents Mount Airy, was scheduled to meet with business owners and survey the damage Friday afternoon. Because Bartlett sits on the House Small Business Committee, perhaps the congressman could help connect the town to some appropriate federal grants, Johnson said.
With fewer businesses open downtown, customers who normal shop at the weekly Mount Airy farmers' market were noticeably absent Wednesday afternoon.
Marjorie Satterlee of Pheasant Hill Farm in Mount Airy brought just a sample of produce because she wasn't expecting many people.
Satterlee said she would bring more for the next three weeks before the market closes.
"There's less people here but maybe more of them feel the need to come in to support us," she said.