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Art Oestrike, owner of Jakie O's, stands up to speak at the Unite Union Street meeting Monday Night. Oestrike talked about the damage to the kitchen and public house of Jackie O's, which has caused Oestrike to have to lay off around 40 employees. 

Hope rises from ashes of West Union fire

Tensions were high as business owners, employees and concerned citizens came together Monday night to discuss the future of the West Union Street block razed by a fire Sunday.

Tensions were high as business owners, employees and concerned citizens came together Monday night to discuss the future of the West Union Street block razed by a fire Sunday.

Even amidst that sadness, laughter erupted when Art Oestrike, owner of Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery, announced he had just received the labels for a new smoked stout created by the brewery.

“We just got 6,600 labels in the mail today, and the beer is called ‘Woodburner,’ ” Oestrike said. “Yeah.” 

Each sale of the ironically titled beer will produce $1 for the West Union Street funding effort. 

Funding for employees and businesses was the major focus of the United Union Street meeting, which was co-hosted by Alli Maloney, public relations director for Jackie O’s, Michelle Corrigan, Live Healthy Appalachia kids director and Mike Flynn, a musician and bartender at Casa Nueva.

Those present discussed how displaced employees could find new work, how they could receive monetary help and how that money might be raised. 

On Monday Oestrike laid off 40 employees and 12 Union Bar & Grill employees, six of which were full-time, are out of work.   

The GoFundMe for Union Street employee relief had already raised roughly $20,000 as of press time Monday. 

Pete Shooner, the associate director of communications for the Russ College of Engineering, and his wife Bailey Wagner started the fund. Shooner hopes to get employees a lump sum of cash by mid-December.

“We want to make sure we take as much advantage of the earning potential as we can, so I hesitate to set a firm cutoff date,” he said.

He added it takes seven to 10 days to receive money from GoFundMe, which takes 5 percent of the proceeds.

Flynn is attempting to organize a weekend-long, multiple-venue music fest in Athens to raise money for the recovering businesses. He is targeting a January date.

“Athens is lucky to have a ton of good musicians,” he said. “It’s a small town with a lot of music, and people love to come out and see stuff like that. I’ve been playing music at the Union. It’s going to be missed and we need to fill that void with as much music as we can right now.”

Business owners also took time at the meeting to give updates on their properties.

Eric Gunn, owner of The Union, said he is waiting for structural engineers to assess the damages.

“We have 12 people without a job currently from this fire, that’s really my main concern,” he said. “But The Union is coming back.”

Property owners have committed to rebuilding the bar, Gunn said.

“We can continue on the 100-plus-year journey of that place,” he said.

Reopening Jackie O’s could take six to eight months, Oestrike said.

“The kitchen is pretty messed up, I just walked through it,” he said. “The kitchen is right under The Union’s building. It is raining in there as we speak. The snow is falling right onto that first floor.”

But the Public House fared better than the kitchen and should be open within a couple of months. He is anticipating opening the Brew Pub side on Wednesday and may have a food truck out front, which would give some food workers a job.

Jocelyn Williams, who co-owns Kismet with her husband ,Victor, said she does not envision the business being able to reopen at its current location. She added, however, that her and her husband are committed to staying in Athens and will be looking for a new location.

“We’re just really sad that this is what happened,” she said. “That was a beautiful space. We waited a long time for it, we knew what we were looking for in Athens. We put a lot of love in it and that was really a joyful store for us. We felt like we made it such a wonderful family there.”

It was by the back of Kismet, 16 W. Union St., that Athens Director of Code Enforcement John Paszke said the fire originated. The investigation is ongoing and a cause has not yet been determined.

“Could take a long time, it may never be figured out,” he said.

Paszke was quick to credit first responders for helping to evacuate 46 people from the apartments along West Union. He told a story of two police officers who were first on the scene and evacuated nearly the entire area by themselves before having to be rescued from the roof. Paszke was under instruction to not name the two officers. 

Nineteen of the 46 people who were evacuated will be displaced for the remainder of the academic year. As for Kismet, Smoke Zone/ the Bobcat Rentals office and Jack Neal Floral “those buildings are pretty much gone,” he said.

Paszke said he had never dealt with a fire this extreme during his six years in office, but he was just happy no one was killed.

“We got that final confirmation (Sunday night) when we got in touch with the last of the residents that lived in the buildings that everyone was okay,” he said. “So once we found out, the fire chief (Robert Rymer) came over and gave me a big hug. We’re just glad no one was hurt. Buildings can be replaced, lives can’t.”


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