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Unbroken Union, Part 3: The rebuild

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Those who owned businesses or property on the Union Street fire block never wavered. From the beginning, all agreed they wanted to rebuild.

It would take several years of planning and construction work — the traffic congestion was indescribable — but the roadway finally fully opened again in 2017.

Several new businesses debuted in the new buildings, including Starbucks and 10 West Clothing Co.

Each of the businesses affected by the fire have since reopened. The last to do so was Kismet, a clothing store now located on West State Street.

”It was unfinished,” owner Jocelyn Williams said when her new store opened in March 2019. “We had a great time and loved the community, loved being part of this community.”

That is the story of the 2014 Union Street fire — community. Our series concludes with reflections on the five years since that fateful day. This story appears in the Sunday, Nov. 24 newspaper on Page A1.

Athens Fire Chief Robert Rymer: “I don’t think anyone working here had ever experienced a big downtown fire. The last one was 1986 and the most senior guy had started in ‘89. We knew it was going to happen at some point in time.”

Peter Couladis, Building Owner: “Everybody seemed to be interested in rebuilding and there wasn’t any person or any building owner that said they were just going to let it collapse. A lot of people were committed to fixing everything up and making it as good as possible.”

Guy Phillips, Building Owner: “My building, owned by myself and Bruce Mitchell, was 13 feet wide, a very small sliver. We worked out a purchase of the building next door and were able to rebuild that. It was bigger than anything we had ever done before.”

Mark Snider, Building Owner: “The building we built was bigger than the building that was there. The group of us that owned it had to go to the bank and work out financing for a bigger building.”

Couladis: “There was this building in the back that sat in between both properties — it didn’t have any damage, but when they started to excavate back there the walls collapsed. I remember the builder telling me there were no footers there and the building was over 100 years old and had no foundation. We fixed that back up and made it better than what it was before.”

Phillips: “All the building owners were very cooperative with each other. We all worked in unison.”

Couladis: “We were fortunate because we didn’t have a total loss of the building structure aside from water damage upstairs. The other buildings had to be completely rebuilt because that’s where the fire started. It was a joint effort to even talk about this and fortunately everybody made the decision to rebuild and fix everything up. I think it’s turned out good, from what I can tell. They turned out pretty good and there was just a long process there.”

Phillips: “We felt responsible to rebuild. We were the people that had responsibility and the resources to do so. I’m very proud of that, but I couldn’t have done it without support from the city, partners, builders ... everyone pulled together. I will say, the cost of the building far outweighed the profit, but it felt like the right thing to do.”

Chief Rymer: “One of the issues that we ran into is that the buildings are sandwiched next to each other for years and years from the 1800s on. There wasn’t any firewalls in between them where they would just close up windows or block up windows and put walls over top of it. It was done so long ago before regulation that (a fire) would just jump from building to building. It took a fire to make them as safe as they are today ...”

Couladis: “Everything was rebuilt and fixed up nice. It’s like the old saying that someone gives you lemons, you make lemonade out of it. And that’s what we tried to do.”

Natasha Neal, Co-Owner of Jack Neal Floral: “For me, I definitely consider it a learning experience because I learned a ton of how to move, what changes you need to make. I’ve gone over my insurance policy every year since the fire, so our insurance is way higher and we’re covered for anything and everything. Business is still not completely there yet, but hoping to be. Maybe we’re dumb or maybe we’re just that invested. But I do feel like we’ll at least get back to where we were before.”

Roderick McDavis, then-Ohio University President: “That was one of the distinct times in my tenure that I really felt the entire university community, as well as the Athens community, come together to support those students that had been adversely affected.”

Cecily Sexton, Apartment Tenant: “One of the biggest things I remembered when I started interviewing for jobs and I’d be really nervous, I (would) remind myself that I’ve done one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. If I can get through the fire, I can get through this. I’ve tried to hold onto that mindset and make it positive. If I can get through such a hard time in my life, I can get through anything.”

APD Lt. Anthony Fish: “I think people in this town appreciate what the first responders do. They appreciate what the fire department does, they appreciate what the EMS does, they appreciate what police do. I think the legacy of this fire is to remember that this fire department is professional and efficient and does a good job of what they have. All those agencies are professional and efficient.”

Martha Compton, then-OU Director of Community and Social Responsibility: “For a long time everybody had told me, and I knew nothing about OU when I took the job, but I kept hearing, ‘There’s no place like Athens.’ That was the first time it was abundantly apparent to me what people meant. Everybody was there to support everybody. People took care of one another.”

Art Oestrike, Owner of Jackie O’s: “I look back on it with sadness, but I also know we’re a better, stronger company today. I don’t think I’m going to encounter things more difficult than that in the future of this business. I don’t think I’m ever going to encounter anything that difficult again.”

Lt. Fish: “Don’t ever forget that (a fire) can start, and if you live in a building that you listen to your fire alarms. If you own a building, make sure your stuff works ... sprinklers need to work, fire alarms need to work, students need to understand bad things can happen and you need to be ready.”

Neal: “The group of businesses definitely pulled together as a community. We were always working on the same street together, you wave when you’re out moving your car or chat. But it was almost like a brotherhood or sisterhood we gained with those people, because you’re all going through the same thing in different ways and variations. But still very similar. It’s just something you can definitely feel for someone else when you’ve been through it.”

Oestrike: “It was amazing, the outpouring of support you got from people here and really, from people all over the world. Just amazing, when you go through those tough moments in life, you find people that really do care. And that’s just awesome.”

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