Recovery Slow but Steady After Illinois Town Blast Last Month

By NICK VLAHOS, (Peoria) Journal Star | December 29, 2016

Shirley Franzoni started a candle business 40 years ago in a residential basement.

Not long after a natural gas explosion last month devastated downtown Canton, including her complex of retail and wholesale establishments, Franzoni appeared ready to return to the bunker. This time for good.

“At one particular point, I just wanted to throw it all away and say, ‘I’m done. I can’t do this anymore,”‘ the 60-year-old Franzoni said earlier this week. “I saw beautiful clothing that had glass shears all over it. Christmas trees blown over. Signs, windows – it was just ridiculous.”

But technology that didn’t exist when Franzoni first became an entrepreneur helped bring her back to the future. On the Facebook social media platform, she posted images of broken glass on the sidewalk in front of her store on Elm Street, around the corner from the blast site on the Canton square.

About 40 people showed up to help clear debris, Franzoni said. Some were employees of her Black Crow Candle Co. and Crow Hollow Boutique, which sells women’s clothing and accessories. Some of them weren’t.

“It was kind of like Scrooge,” Franzoni said in citing the sour-to-sweet protagonist of Charles Dickens’ classic tale “A Christmas Carol.” “You see the people outside and they’re laughing and smiling and shoveling up stuff, and people are bringing down cookies.

“Then you think, ‘Wait, these aren’t just my employees, they’re my friends. They are more than a paycheck. They are people who truly, truly care about my well-being.’ That makes you feel really, really good.”

That we’re-all-in-this-together approach appears to be helping Canton recover from the blast Nov. 16 at the Opera House Professional Center. The explosion killed a utility worker, Arturo Silva Jr. of Mapleton, and injured about a dozen others. It also damaged about 50 buildings.

“It showed several things,” Canton Mayor Jeff Fritz said from his second-story City Hall office that overlooks the square. “No. 1, that people would come out and make a bad thing into a good thing and go forward. And not sit back and – I hate to say it this way – cry over their wounds.”

Some physical wounds still are apparent downtown.

Not all broken windows have been replaced. Plywood covers perhaps one-third to half the display-glass spaces around the square. And not all merchants are open.

Prairieland Printing, along Elm Street just south of the blast site, won’t resume regular hours until Jan. 3, according to a post on its Facebook page.

“Prairieland is the only one in town that does UPS (shipping), and this is their busiest time,” said Amanda Atchley, executive director of the Canton Area Chamber of Commerce. “All that shipping over the holidays, and he’s lost out on all that revenue.”

Also still shuttered is Shandi’s Music & More, a record and collectibles store located next door to the Opera House. A benefit is scheduled for March 18 in Tremont to raise money for Shandi’s owner Bob Long.

The Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development has helped create a disaster recovery fund for Canton businesses the blast has affected and whose insurance might not be comprehensive. Last week, the fund distributed about $18,000 in grants to 10 businesses. A second distribution is to take place Dec. 28, with the amount based on donations received.

“Behind the scenes, there’s obviously a lot that these owners are still dealing with,” Atchley said. “I worry about businesses long-term staying open. There’s a big statistic that a lot of them don’t reopen or stay open after a disaster like this. Our goal is to do what we can to keep them going.”

The going for Franzoni’s business has been good, she said. Sales this Christmas season have been more brisk than last year. She attributes some of that to Canton residents making a concerted effort to shop local right now.

Mandy Kosowski, the Crow Hollow store manager, suggested part of the boost is from out-of-towners who have visited Canton to see explosion damage for themselves.

“We’ve been getting a lot of people from the Quad Cities, from Chillicothe, different areas where I usually don’t get customers,” Kosowski said. “It’s almost like we’ve gotten tourists from it.”

A return to usual downtown patterns might hinge at least in part on what becomes of the Opera House. The building opened in 1891. An annex was destroyed in the blast, and the Opera House itself is not sound structurally.

The city is working with the building owner, Peoria developer Kert Huber, and his tenants to determine what to do, Fritz said. The 19,500-square-foot facility was at full occupancy.

The Opera House also sustained damage in 1975, when a tornado destroyed more than 100 downtown businesses.

“That building is an icon on the square,” Fritz said about the possibility of the Opera House being razed. “It puts a big hole in the downtown-square area again. We’re trying to do everything we can to keep it.”

Fritz, who cited the community’s resiliency, said he thought it might be a month before general downtown activities approach normality. Franzoni suggested it might take until summer.

Atchley didn’t appear ready to hazard a guess. When interviewed Tuesday afternoon, she said she had just spoken with a downtown resident who was home when the explosion took place.

“You could tell she was still pretty upset and distraught about the situation and was trying to get her life back together as best as she could,” Atchley said. “We’ve never had to deal with anything like this in my experience, so I would say it’s going to take some time. What’s reasonable, at least, is a few more months to get the buildings back to where they need to be.

“I’m probably selling it short.”

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