When disaster strikes, how do downtowns recover?

Fire damaged the Corner Bar on Aug. 14 - a beloved icon in downtown Rockford.

By Rick Haglund

The Corner Bar’s imprint on downtown Rockford is far wider than its name implies.

“When you told people from outside the area that you were from Rockford, the first thing they said was, ‘I’ve been to the Corner Bar,’ ” said Barb Stein, owner of the Great Northern Trading Co. and a Michigan Retailers Association board member.

And when this thriving bar and family restaurant was mostly destroyed by fire in August, much of the rest of downtown felt its loss. Several other nearby businesses suffered water and smoke damage. Traffic in the business district is still being disrupted by the rebuilding effort.

It’s a disaster officials in downtown Charlevoix know all too well as they continue to recover from two major fires there last winter.

How businesses owners and downtowns are coping with losses from the fires in Rockford, north of Grand Rapids, and Charlevoix in northern Michigan, offers important rebuilding lessons for retail businesses.

The two Charlevoix fires, on Nov. 13 and Christmas Eve, damaged nearly 20 retail businesses and offices. Some, including the busy Cherry Republic store, have yet to reopen.

At the same time, the city was dealing a bridge repair project on the north end of downtown that caused long traffic delays on U.S. 31.

“It was pretty devastating,” said Charlevoix DDA Director Lindsey Dotson. “People thought you couldn’t drive here.”

Fearing that residents and tourists thought the downtown was shuttered, the DDA launched “Charlevoix is Open for Business,” a television and social media campaign.

It also created a $30,000 building façade improvement in which businesses are reimbursed for half their costs, up to $10,000.

And members have undertaken new initiatives, such as a study that’s underway to identify ways of recruiting new businesses and expanding existing ones.

“Things had been the same in downtown for some time,” Dotson said. “I think the fires have people waking up and rethinking downtown. There’s a renewed energy.”

In Rockford, Corner Bar owner Jeff Wolfe said he felt “shock and disbelief” as his business went up in flames in the early morning hours of August 14, but knew almost immediately that he would rebuild.

“I can’t even get my head around why anyone wouldn’t,” Wolfe said.

Only the front façade and part of another exterior wall remained. Wolfe said he could have torn it down and built a cheaper building, but decided the front of the 144-year-old building was a touchstone that needed to be saved.

“It was important to save that because it was recognizable to the community and the generations of people that have gone there,” he said.

The building has been home to the Corner Bar since the 1935.

But saving the façade and trying to restore the ambience of the original interior will likely cost several hundred thousand of dollars more than the insurance settlement, Wolfe said.

The community has pitched in with a fundraising campaign being managed by the Rockford Chamber of Commerce.

Being a good neighbor and a community supporter can pay off when a business experiences a fire or other major setback, he said.

“My advice is to be gracious with neighbors and the community. Be humble,” Wolfe said. “We’re an integral part of the community and it’s coming back to us with people offering prayers, words of encouragement and financial assistance.”

Kimberly’s Boutique, located next to the Corner Bar, was forced to close for three weeks because of water damage from extinguishing the blaze.

Owner Kimberly Smith said she kept customers informed about the store’s reopening timetable through social media, and with stories and advertisements in the local newspaper.

“We just hit it hard with being in their face constantly,” she said. “There are ways to do that inexpensively. We used Facebook Live a lot.”

Smith said she placed large banners on the front and back of her store announcing its reopening and decorated the storefront in a fall theme of pumpkins, mums, cornstalks and straw bales.

A summer clearance sale that was interrupted by the fire resumed when the store reopened Sept 8. And shoppers received a token gift for every $100 they spent.

“You definitely have to be super aggressive right out of the gate,” Smith said.

Rockford’s downtown is likely to feel the affects of the fire, ranging from street closures to reduced traffic generated by the popular Corner Bar, for months.

“It’s a huge impact,” Stein said. “I’ve been expecting Christmas shipments, but they can’t get to me. It’s all the little things that nobody sees.”

Wolfe said he’s aiming reopen the Corner Bar on June 1, which can’t come soon enough for neighboring Rockford businesses.

“That’s going to be rough,” Smith said. “But we’re going to keep on keepin’ on. That’s our theme.”