Merrimack Valley businesses affected by gas fires look for salvation in holiday shoppers
LAWRENCE — On a typical Black Friday morning, Carleen’s Coffee Shoppe would fill with shoppers who craved a good breakfast before hitting the stores or needed to recharge after a night of shopping or waiting in line for the best deals.
But this year, John Farrington had no one to feed at his South Broadway restaurant, which has been closed since gas fires and explosions erupted in the Merrimack Valley on Sept. 13. When two women came to the door at about 12:30 p.m., Farrington turned them away.
“Another week or two,” he told them. “I’m sorry.”
As the holiday shopping season started Friday, many businesses affected by the gas fires in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover are still counting their losses. Some like Carleen’s and Delish Bakery and Cafe, about three-tenths of a mile away, remain closed.
Others like Lifestyles Furniture in Lawrence and Pronto Pizza, across from a park where displaced residents live in trailers, have had some customers but have yet to see business bounce back to where it was before the disaster, their owners said.
On Saturday, state and local officials are hoping to give small businesses in the three communities a boost with events tied to Small Business Saturday.
In North Andover, shoppers are eligible to receive a gift card for up to $100 for purchases made at more than 60 businesses on Saturday and Sunday, said Town Manager Andrew Maylor.
Andover is hosting a Touch-a-Truck event at Old Town Hall and giving away canvas totes from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m Saturday to bring shoppers to the business district, where places like Casa Blanca Mexican Restaurant and Elm Square Oyster Co. recently reopened.
Jay Ash and his deputy, Carolyn Kirk, the Baker administration’s two top economic development officials, plan to visit Merrimack Valley businesses on Saturday, said Colleen Arons, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.
A Columbia Gas-funded website where consumers can buy gift cards from more than 600 businesses in the affected communities is expected to launch this weekend, she said.
On Tuesday, the state announced the utility was setting aside $10 million to help businesses’ recovery efforts.
“We’re trying to do anything and everything we can to promote our businesses, because the town is only as strong as our businesses are,” said Ann Ormond, director of business, arts and cultural development in Andover.
Thousands of people were left without heat or hot water after an overpressurization of the gas delivery system sparked more than 120 fires and explosions, killing a teenager and injuring more than 20 people.
A preliminary investigation determined that a construction crew replacing pipeline in South Lawrence had left a pressure sensor on an abandoned pipeline and failed to place a new one. That caused outside monitors to detect low pressure in the network and to remotely increase gas flow, leading to the overpressurization.
As of Friday, Columbia Gas said it had restored gas service to 80 percent of the affected residential meters while fewer than 85 commercial meters remained offline.
Raymond Madira, who owns Pronto Pizza on South Union Street, said he reopened earlier this month after the restaurant was outfitted with a new boiler, hot water heaters, fryolators, and gas valves.
Gas workers file into the wood-paneled dining area at lunch time, he said, but dinner business has dropped significantly. Madira speculated that many of his regular customers still haven’t been allowed to return home or don’t have money to dine out.
The holidays are typically a busy time for the pizzeria, he said.
“You usually do 30 percent more business than usual,” said Madira.
Farrington said his staff is planning to gather at the restaurant on Sunday to mark the holiday season and get reacquainted. He hasn’t set a date yet for reopening because he’s still waiting for kitchen equipment, including a grill, range, fryolators, and stock pot burner.
Farrington, who usually reported to the restaurant every day at 4:45 a.m., said he wonders whether his customers will return.
“That’s my biggest fear. In 35 years this place hasn’t been closed down more than two days in a row. Normally we just close Christmas day. All of the sudden we’re closed for 2½ months,” he said.
David Bider operates a furniture retailer, music store, and mail-order business in a brick building on South Broadway, where his wife also runs a dance supply shop. Nearby, he has a seasonal costume store, Halloween Headquarters.
The costume business was down 40 to 45 percent this year, Bider said, as some customers believed the store was closed or found it too difficult to get to, because construction vehicles were often parked outside. Others were turned off by the prospect of trying on costumes in an unheated building, he said.
At his store, Lifestyles Furniture, the dining room and sofa sets customers normally buy at Thanksgiving stayed on the showroom floor, and his wife’s dance supply business was closed because of the disaster during the September weekend when most students buy new shoes, leotards, and tights, he said.
“You just have to go to work every day and try to make it business as usual,” Bider said. “It’s like show business. The show must go on.”