When Cesar Gil opened Mi Cocina Restaurant and Bakery in Lawrence, he spent four years cultivating a base of customers to his Dominican takeout restaurant.
Then one day in September, a series of gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley forced Gil and hundreds of other business owners to close, many for weeks, and his restaurant hasn’t been the same since.
“I lost a lot of guests,” Gil said through a translator at his restaurant Tuesday afternoon. “Right now, it’s not like before. It’s not too bad, but I can tell.”
The plight of Gil and other business owners affected by the Sept. 13 disaster has prompted local officials to develop a marketing campaign to persuade customers to support shops and businesses affected by the disaster. Dubbed “Rock the Register,” the marketing campaign will include newspaper, magazine, television, and radio ads promoting shopping at small businesses.
Officials are also pressing Columbia Gas to speed up payment of claims from businesses. Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said many businesses still are not seeing the same level of customers they had before the incident, and some have not yet received full payouts from Columbia Gas, the utility whose construction work triggered the explosions and fires that damaged buildings, forced evacuations, and killed one person on Sept. 13.
He said “unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles,” such as financial documentation requirements, are slowing payments to business owners for losses during months of construction and closures.
“Columbia Gas thinks it’s a process where everyone has 100 percent of the documentation,” Rivera said. “They could waive all those things and just pay people.”
Nearly 900 locally owned businesses in Lawrence, North Andover, and Andover were affected, Rivera said at a news conference Tuesday. Many homes and businesses went without heat or hot water for weeks late last year as Columbia Gas raced to replace miles of underground pipes damaged during the incident.
The construction work took a heavy toll, cordoning off streets and limiting the movements of residents and customers within the affected area in the three communities. Now, some 10 months after the incident, Rivera said more than 70 percent of local businesses have resumed normal operations, but many others have not.
Kellee Twadelle, owner of Rose and Dove Specialty Gift Shop, said her North Andover store was closed for three days, but other businesses were closed for over three months.
“During repairs, we were without heat for months. Our entrance into the plaza was nearly blocked and traffic diverted daily,” she said. “These kinds of adversities certainly would hurt any business.”
Food-based businesses were the most affected because most use gas to prepare their foods, unlike businesses that use gas only for heat, said Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership, a nonprofit that’s helping oversee a $10 million fund to help impacted businesses.
The tight labor market also meant some food service employees found work elsewhere during closures, causing stores to lose staff, he said.
Mitchell estimated half of businesses impacted by the explosions are located in South Lawrence.
“If you run a local pizzeria, there were pizzerias in North Lawrence that were still open,” Mitchell said. “So your customers established a new place to get their takeout.”
Gil said he expected the booming business he saw in July and August of last year to keep growing, but the momentum halted after the explosions forced him to shutdown.
He used a large portion of the $26,000 he received from Columbia Gas to pay staff for the time the restaurant was closed and lost only one of six employees. But many of the regular diners he spent four years building a relationship with didn’t come back, and Gil thinks Columbia should pay more for this lost business.
A spokesman for Columbia Gas, Scott Ferson, said the company has settled nearly all of the 25,000 claims it received, with the remaining few taking time because they need sufficient financial documentation to justify the payment.
“A lot of small businesses don’t have the same systems in place to document the claims that larger businesses or individuals would have,” Ferson said. “We don’t doubt the claims, we just need to be able to document them.”
To help those business owners, Ferson said Columbia is providing forensic accountants to help build a financial record for their claims.
Also on Tuesday, Columbia Gas announced it had reached a settlement with the family of Leonel Rondon, an 18-year-old Lawrence resident who was killed when a collapsing chimney fell on him. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but Columbia Gas added it will set up a separate scholarship fund in Rondon’s name.
“He was only 18 years old and full of life,” said Doug Sheff, a lawyer for Rondon’s family, in the statement. “He loved science and had a passion for music. He dreamt of going to college and cared for his family members in every way possible.”