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Jersey Shore Fire a Reminder of the Importance of Having a Tight-Knit Business Community

Jersey Shore Fire a Reminder of the Importance of Having a Tight-Knit Business Community
Image credit: Robert Stolarik/The New York Times

In the wake of the second boardwalk disaster in less than a year, the Jersey Shore's business owners will be relying once again on their tight-knit community to help them rebuild.

First there was Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed homes and businesses and left millions of people in New Jersey without power. Then, last Thursday, a fire damaged or destroyed about 50 boardwalk businesses in the adjoining neighborhoods of Seaside Heights and Seaside Park. A five-block area went up in flames, including many local businesses that had only recently recovered from Sandy.

"It's one of the most unbelievable sights I've ever seen," says Robbie Kay, the 56-year-old general manager of The Sawmill, a restaurant in Seaside Park that suffered little structural fire damage but a great deal of water damage from firefighters' attempts to put out the blaze. "Buildings there one day and completely rubble the next."

Investigators initially declared the area a crime scene, although the cause of the fire, which apparently originated in a Kohr's ice cream stand, was not then known. The fire was since determined to be accidental.

Local businesses say the key to recovery will be the same as it was last time: reliance on a longstanding community of fellow business owners, technicians and loyal customers, plus a lot of grit, determination and boardwalk pride.

Related: 6 Lessons From Small Businesses Devastated by Superstorm Sandy

After Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey Shore, Nick Dionisio depended on the kindness of electricians, refrigeration guys and his landlord to get his two Park Seafood stalls up and running again in Seaside Park. He returned the favor by repaying the repairmen as soon as possible, despite a slow summer, even prioritizing that debt over getting more insurance coverage for his businesses.

It helps that Dionisio's landlord is the son of the man who owned the property where Dionisio's father once operated a seafood business. History like that creates a general sense of camaraderie rather than competition among local business owners.

After Sandy, says Kay, "We needed everyone to attempt to get back to some type of normalcy as far as business was concerned." After all, vacationers weren't going to flock to the boardwalk because of a single clam bar or pizza joint. It was about the total appeal of the region.

Now the future is uncertain once again. "Everyone put everything they could into it, only to have this wipe out every ounce of effort," Kay says. It's demoralizing."

Dionisio, for his part, is determined to come back. "It's what I have in me to do," he says, recalling how, as a boy under the age of 10, he used to do prep work in his grandfather's clam bar. But the question of how to rebuild, when his clam bar is unrecognizable, and all that remains of his more upscale seafood place is the shell, is as yet unanswered.

In the difficult weeks and months ahead, he will lean on others in the community. "We might not all socialize together, but we all look out for one another," Kay says -- recommending one another's businesses to visitors, for instance.

Like Dionisio, Kay relied on repairmen and suppliers cutting him a break after Sandy. His food and paper products suppliers, who normally expect payment in one to two weeks, "didn't even put a limit on us," he says. His local electrician, meanwhile, put in "all kinds of crazy hours" bringing him back online.

The Sawmill's multi-million-dollar building was insured against fire, and Kay will be calling on these people again once the paperwork is settled. "We're ready to jump right in with our army of workers," he says.

Related: Six Months After Hurricane Sandy, Many Businesses Are Still Struggling to Recover

Brian Patrick Eha is a freelance journalist and former assistant editor at Entrepreneur.com. He is writing a book about the global phenomenon of Bitcoin for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It will be published in 2015.

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