Hope Remains In Downtown Opelika

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PHOTO BY ROBERT NOLES / THE OBSERVER

BY THE OBSERVER STAFF

EDITOR@
OPELIKAOBSERVER.COM

OPELIKA —

Opelika is mourning the loss of Maffia’s. One week ago, on July 21, Maffia’s burned to the ground in the middle of the night, leading to a total loss.

In the week since, recovery has begun, even though it is a slow process.

Opelika’s Mayor, Gary Fuller, happened to be awake at that hour, because he was at a conference in London, England.

“I was attending the foreign bureau air show, just outside London, and we were recruiting industry, so when I got to my hotel room from breakfast, I saw a text message. Course, 7:30 in the morning in London is 1:30 a.m. in Opelika.

“I saw the text right away from [Fire Chief Shane] Boyd that he had sent to me.”

Fuller said that he felt helpless in London, despite the fact that there wasn’t much to be done immediately on his end even had he been in Opelika, but he heaped praise on the Opelika Fire Department for its quick action and response.

“I cannot commend them enough for the fabulous job that they did,” he said. “My fear has always been, if something catches fire downtown, the likelihood of it spreading to other buildings, because of the proximity of other structures, is pretty great. And, of course, many of those buildings are well over 100 years old, so you know they’ve got a lot of heart-pine lumber in them.”

However, other structures did not burn down, even though nearby businesses did suffer damage.

The Opelika Fire Department received aid from the Auburn Fire Department during the night, Fuller said, which helped contain the flames.

“The only thing that I can say is that it was an absolute miracle that the fire didn’t spread to the other two buildings, and it was entirely because Opelika and Auburn both fought so hard to get it out,” said Nelson Marsh, who’s family owned the building that Maffia’s was in. “My folks and I were down there all night, and we were absolutely amazed with how brave and organized those firefighters were. They are genuine heroes.”

There was an immediate response in terms of cleanup, too, Fuller said.

PHOTO BY ROBERT NOLES / THE OBSERV ER

“We immediately got someone engaged to clean the site, to straighten up the front of the sidewalk and to barricade the ruins over, which has been done, which took a lot of great work by Mike Hilyer and his public works folks,” he said. “But, overall, I hate that we lost a structure, but I’m so grateful we did not have additional damage and additional structures that burned.”

This tragedy affected many in Opelika.

“Opelika Main Street is devastated to learn about the fire that occurred early [Thursday],” said Ken Ward, director of Opelika Main Street. “Our thoughts and prayers are with all the impacted businesses along with their employees during this time.”

Ernie Rains, owner of Rock n Roll Pinball wasn’t allowed back into his business right away to check the damage.

But when he did, it was manageable.

“We feel completely blessed and lucky to be a little separated and to have next to no damage, no repercussions,” he said. “We had a little bit of water in our Jailhouse music venue, and that found its way out and underneath our floor. It’s downhill from our floor all the way to Side Track Coffee, so the water flows that way underneath the floors … They pump that water out, and we are using fans to make sure that the water underneath our floor, which is in puddles and stuff, eventually evaporates. We do have a residual smoky aroma coming up from underneath, but we expect that to eventually go away.

“… Of course, we are highly appreciative of the firefighters’ efforts to contain the fire and not allow it to spread. All the businesses have wooden floors, so when you start a fire on those wooden floors, there’s just no way to put that out. Well, no good way.”

And the business is in operation, as Rains said, at 100%.

Southern Crossings, however, was not so lucky. The business, which has been open more than 25 years, also suffered a total loss, due to water damage from fighting the fire.

“It’s a complete loss of contents and everything,” said Valerie Smith, owner of Southern Crossings. “They had to fight the fire through our building, so it’s full of water and smoke, and I’m in shock.”

The store was in the middle of holding a big summer sale — ready to get new Fall and Christmas items out for sale. Smith said she doesn’t know if the store will reopen or how it would.

“I really just love what I do, and I’m sad I can’t do it,” she said. “But thank you for all the support, and everybody’s been so kind and reached out and asked if there’s anything they can do, and we just need prayers. That’s it. We’re going to be fine, but I don’t know what the future holds for Southern Crossing.

“… I don’t know what opening back up, ever, looks like, but thank you for all your support throughout the years. I got a text from … the original owner — she’s in Missouri on vacation — but that just speaks for itself that she is on vacation, and this is what she’s worried about because all the women who have worked here — the previous owners — we’ve all put so much hard work and … such a huge part of our lives into it.”

Smith encouraged patrons to continue to shop locally at other small business.

“I really feel for the couple next door — the Smiths, Valerie and Mike — and their daughter, Maddy,” Rains said. “All of their inventory got ruined. I’ve been encouraging people on social media to reach out to them … They do the best job of wrapping gifts … I’m sure, over the [several] years that they’ve been open, thousands of people have received gifts from their store … I think I talked to her [Monday], and she was in much better spirits, so, hopefully, they will bounce back and reopen, if not at this location, then somewhere real close by.

“It’s something our community needs, and we need to encourage the discouraged owners to bounce back and not throw up their hands.”

Opelika is resilient, Fuller said.

“I would encourage [the Maffia’s owners] to be strong and know that this is not the end,” he said. “It’s a new opportunity for them, something that they, I’m sure, had not planned to happen, but hopefully they will be able to get their business back open, perhaps in another building … Maffia’s was absolutely an outstanding restaurant, I have been there several times and always had a really good meal.

“And Nick and Robin and his crew obviously know something about Italian cooking. And Nick credits his mother and grandmother and uncle from the old country on teaching him how to do that. So I would encourage him to be strong.”

Fuller said that he hopes The Marshes will build a new building in that spot. Nelson said that not much has been done yet in terms of rebuilding.

“To be honest, all that we’ve done is closed it up and started the whole process,” he said.

IN TERMS OF RECOVERY?

“We do not currently have a finalized plan for a fundraiser effort, but I am comfortable saying that the Opelika Chamber and Opelika Main Street are coordinating efforts to provide support to businesses, and as more details become available, we can share that,” said Ali Rauch, president and CEO of the Opelika Chamber of Commerce. “The businesses are still just trying to figure out where they need assistance. It’s taking time.”

The Community Foundation of East Alabama has started a fundraiser to bring in money for the locally-affected businesses.

“The Community Foundation of East Alabama expresses its sympathy to the property owners, the businesses and the livelihoods that have been affected by the recent fire at Maffia’s,” The Community Foundation said in a statement.

“The Foundation has set up a Downtown Fund to help with any needs in those areas and future needs. All contributions are tax-deductible. Mailing address is PO Box 165, Opelika, AL, 36803 or on the website at www.cfeastalabama.org.”

Rains is organizing an event as well to show appreciation to the firefighters.

“I am hoping to put together some kind of event where the community can recognize the tremendous effort of the firefighters,” he said. “… We are shooting for the second week in August or the Friday of the first week in August because people need to think about it when it’s still fresh in their minds.”

Fuller said that Opelika’s people are what make it special — even in tragedies like this.

“You know, we just have really great people that live here, that work here, that worship, that play, that own businesses, that educate the children in Opelika, so there’s a lot of resilience in our community,” he said. “… We know how to come back from something because we’ve done it before, we’ve got a good track record. So, yes, this will be a stumbling block, but just very temporary. I think our downtown will be back stronger than ever and I hope that Maffia’s will get reopened because what a great restaurant, what good food.”

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