LUMBERTON — Two downtown merchants plan to relocate their businesses following a fire that gutted a building last week and left uncertain the fate of two buildings, all on the 300 block of Elm Street, which remains closed to traffic.
The building that was destroyed was at 305 N. Elm St., and was the future location of a church. The cause of the fire is still unknown.
Cherry Spruill, owner of All Occasions Bridal at 312 N. Elm St., will seek a new building to house her 400 prom gowns and 275 wedding gowns, according to Connie Russ, the city’s downtown development coordinator. Russ said that water used to extinguish the nearby flames damaged the building’s walls and ceiling.
“I understand the folks down there are helping her out and we want to help her get up and running the best we can,” Russ said.
Felicia Evans Long, who had planned to house a candy shop in the small space nestled between Spruill’s shop and the burned-out structure, has rented a building in the city’s downtown plaza, at 212 Chestnut St.
“It’s a better location, better view, and she likes it better,” said Dallice Butler, Long’s contractor. “It’s just a better space all around. … Sometimes that’s the way things happen in life. You’re somewhere you’re not supposed to be and God finds a better place for you.”
But the fire was costly for Long.
“We lost a lot of inventory during the fire and my contractors tools were damaged from the water. Because we had not opened to the general public, we had not secured renter’s insurance yet,” Long said. “… Sadly, without adequate resources, we are not sure if we will open before the end of this year.”
Long is asking anyone who would like to donate to her effort to get back on her feet to send a check to 290 Nealy Ave., Lumberton, N.C., 28360.
Long’s first choice for a business location, at 310 N. Elm St., is owned by Dick Taylor, who said he hasn’t yet decided what to do with the space that was once just an alleyway and then a shoe store. On Thursday, the day after the fire, pieces of the building’s waterlogged ceiling were still falling and an exterior wall shared with the now burned-out structure was leaning outward.
“When you have the interior of one building burn, you damage the walls of the next building,” said Jody Allen, director of inspections for the city.
Allen said that condemning the structure would be a “last resort,” and a move that would only be made by the city if a structural engineer, hired by Taylor, does not come up with a plan to make it safe.
Taylor said that his first concern is the repair of a building on the opposite side of the rubble pile that houses J-V TV Repair. He said he had met with an engineer on Monday who had suggested a fix, but the plan had not yet been submitted to the city.
“Right now, our biggest problem is getting that wall stabilized,” Taylor said. “I’m just wanting to get it done.
“We’ll have to go in and build new walls on the inside,” he said. “Once we have those floors secured we can go in and take out the brick wall, which is 24 inches thick on the bottom.”
Russ said the instability of the two walls is preventing the stretch of Elm Street from reopening.
“There are two brick walls left standing from the fire, and those walls are bowed,” she said. “There’s a real risk of those walls falling. If anyone was walking or driving by and those walls fell, there’s a potential for the bricks to roll out and hurt somebody.”
Jon Gorman, the owner of the television repair shop, said he can understand business owners’ frustration with the closure of the street. His is the only affected business that has not reopened.
“You’re out of business,” he said. “Every day that goes by you’re in the hole more and more. Everyone’s losing money.”
W.C. and Joan Washington, owners of Washington’s Mens Store, said that foot traffic “has slowed to nothing.”
“The street closure is an inconvenience to our customers,” W.C. Washington said. “They get to the front of Elm Street and think that maybe the store’s closed too … the only business we’re getting is what we already had.”
“It’s hard to be patient,” Gorman said. “You can’t really give customers a time frame, either.”
Russ said the road closure is “really interfering with day-to-day operations.”
“We are very concerned with public safety,” she said. “We can’t have people driving or walking downtown when there’s a risk of somebody getting hurt.
“It’s a bad situation and we are doing everything we can but unfortunately it’s something we have no control over. It is personal property. The city cannot go in there and do anything to it.”
Taylor, who owns several downtown buildings, is keeping his eye on the big picture.
“It’s still a little too early to say what’s going to happen,” Taylor said. “… I’m more interested in keeping the integrity of the downtown area.”