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Fire didn't destroy confidence of business


© St. Petersburg Times, published June 5, 2000

On Tuesday, Rose Milljour and Joan Catellier will commemorate what could have been a catastrophe.

The two run Designing Parties, a party decoration and supply business that they say is thriving despite a fire that destroyed their store in New Port Richey a year ago tomorrow.

"We are the phoenix that rose from the ashes," Milljour said.

She and other business owners tried by fire offer a primer on how small businesses can emerge from a seeming catastrophe relatively unscathed.

"We were closed a good eight or nine months and that really hurt us." Milljour said. "We lost all of our party goods, because nothing could be resold that could be eaten out of. We had to dump everything."

But despite the fact that the fire happened on a Sunday, by Monday, they were up and running again -- this time working out of the two women's homes.

"The day after the fire on Monday morning, I called my suppliers and said ship it to our home address," Milljour said. "We basically started up that Monday morning getting things as much in order as could."

"The day of the fire we had eight deliveries for graduates," Milljour said. "We delivered seven of those eight bouquets of balloons."

The partners credit their quick rebound to tenacity and resourcefulness.

"We just ordered what we needed and kept on going," Catellier said.

Having cooperative suppliers, the two agreed, was key to their recovery, but more crucial was a loyal customer base.

"Regular customers called us at home and said we're having a party and need balloons," Milljour said.

A loyal following also was key to restaurant operator Grace Marisi after her Sam's Hudson Beach Snack Bar burned in 1998.

Marisi, like Milljour and Catellier, took almost a year to rebuild her business.

"My people were waiting," Marisi said of the patrons of her landmark spot for suds and sunsets. "They were in line out here just to come in."

That's also why the two businesses chose to renovate rather than relocate.

"You can't just pick up and move to some other place, not when people are counting on you," Marisi said. "I don't really think I could've not rebuilt. They were giving me unbelievable strength and encouragement.

"To this day people are still thanking me for rebuilding."

Milljour said the renovation of their downtown New Port Richey store off Main Street attracted lots of new customer attention.

"We've gotten a lot of new customers, people who didn't know we were here, who watched the progress, then came for curiosity's sake," she said. "And we don't care because everybody has a party eventually."

She said the fire partly was a blessing in disguise.

"We have new signage and the buildings have been totally repainted on outside and new awnings, not just because of the fire," Milljour said. "It was done because it was starting to look shabby and we said "Oh, it's the perfect time.' "

The Insurance Institute of America, a Washington-based organization that advises small businesses on coverage, counsels business owners to keep detailed records with multiple backups to prove what was lost in a fire, especially because some types of insurance will cover lost revenues during the business-interruption period. The institute also advises setting up an emergency plan with ways to notify suppliers and clients of unforeseen location changes. Moreover, experts recommend getting multiple bids for construction after making small, immediate repairs to secure the damaged property.

Overall, Marisi said, there's little a business owner can do to be ready for such an event.

"I don't think anybody ever prepares for that in a million years," she said. "Sometimes I still don't believe it happened."

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