Small Businesses Stress About Future in East Palestine
EAST PALESTINE – The 1820 Candle Co. has that great smell again, the scents of hand poured candles created by owner Melissa Smith and her daughter and partner, Sydney Smith.
But worries about the business’s future in the wake of the train derailment also linger in the air.
“We have an online presence for our business, but our foot traffic would be our biggest concern,” Melissa Smith said. “We’ve discussed this with several other community business owners, and some of them are seeing people who are afraid to come to our town.”
At the same time, Smith said there has been a great outpouring of support from some regular customers, and there has been some air quality testing while cleanup is still being done at the derailment site.
Still, some people remained concerned, and she thinks that is understandable.
“After the media leaves and after all the attention dies down, what’s the future for us,” Smith said, noting that business concerns are rightfully on the back burner right now while everyone helps the people in the community. “Definitely we need to focus on doing a resurgence. … We want this to be a comeback. We don’t want this to be a fade-away.”
Dr. Jessica Rocco, a member of village council and owner of Well Adjusted Chiropractic and Wellness, said business has been down since the derailment. At first the business was closed because of the evacuation and now possibly because people are concerned about coming into town. Rocco said about a quarter of her patients come into East Palestine from the surrounding communities, and about 80% of those have not come back. Business has been at about 50% this month compared with normal.
Likewise, it was an unusual Valentine’s Day for Flowers Straight From the Heart downtown. They were unable to get their shipment in on time, and then it was nonstop to get things ready, said owner Joy Mascher. At the same time, she had some people from Pennsylvania who said they saw her on the news and wanted to come support her, which she felt was very heartfelt.
But Mascher worries about the future if, overall, people are afraid to come.
“I’m very concerned,” Mascher said. “I’m extremely concerned about what’s to come because it is not going to be cured overnight.”
Mascher does not believe the federal government has stepped up enough, leaving it to people in the area to help take care of the residents of East Palestine with water. She knows of a man who was compelled to drive up from the Hocking Hills area with a truckload of water.
She also thinks everything opened up too soon just to get a railroad open. “Slapped down a new track and got them up and running,” she said. And she is concerned about the hazardous waste going to East Liverpool and causing more problems in another local community and the Ohio River.
Shelley Smith is an independent contractor stylist at Skilz Salon on East Taggart Street, about a block from the North Pleasant Street railroad crossing, which is closest to the derailment. Railcars sat behind her building during the days following the derailment, which closed Skilz for about a week.
“We’re at ground zero,” Smith said. “It’s scary. I feel like eventually it’s going to come back. … I hope.”
She has not detected the chemical smell that is more prevalent near the creeks. But she said when Norfolk Southern moved equipment and some vehicles that burnt, it smelled like hot electrical, hydraulic fluid or diesel fluid.
The salon uses the city water supply, which has tested safe by the Ohio EPA, the county health department and the city. Smith said she has had no problems putting her hands in the water for work.
“Do I think you should plant a garden this year? Nope, I do not,” Smith said. “Do I think you should support our businesses? Absolutely, 100%, because we need you.”
Right past the salon, Taggart Street, which goes into Pennsylvania has remained closed, and that makes it tougher for people to get to the village.
“We just recovered from COVID and it felt like everything was getting more normal and happier – people weren’t so doom-and-gloom and scared to get every germ imaginable.”
Melissa Smith said some businesses could help themselves by making sure they have a strong online presence.
“We’ve had COVID, and we’ve had this. So if you haven’t diversified yet, then now is the time to do it,” Smith said.
On Monday, Smith hosted U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, at her business for a discussion with some community members. Smith, who also lives on a family farm, said some of the discussion related to concerns about the soil and how this may affect agriculture.
They discussed the lack of answers some people feel they are getting, including from their physicians, who have never dealt with chemical concerns, and perhaps are not certain what is causing the symptoms they are experiencing.
Smith said Brown listened to them and agreed to take things back to his people and get them answers. She believes Brown is willing to work in a bipartisan way to get things done for both businesses and residents, not just to make it political.
“People want their community back. They want to see Norfolk Southern take care of what it has promised,” Brown said, adding the EPA imposed out a rule that if Norfolk Southern does not do what it said, it will cost the railway three times whatever the EPA has to pay to accomplish it.
Brown said Norfolk Southern has laid off thousands of workers, spent its money on stock buybacks and has not spent it on safety. He is concerned that the railroads are interested in weakening safety measures, want fewer people operating the trains, have not adopted better brakes and better tanks, along with other updates that would make the rails safer.
While he said he intends to push the railroad to do the right thing, he also believes the people in the area are resilient enough to get through this.
“I’ve seen a resiliency in this county and, in particular, in Unity Township and in East Palestine that is pretty unusual,” Brown said. “And I think people are going to recognize that when they decide we’re staying here and we’re fighting back and we’ve seen this resiliency.”
Brown pledged he will be here throughout the recovery and said he has spoken with President Joe Biden, including when he was in Warsaw, Poland. Brown has had even more conversations with Biden’s staff, and he believes whether the president comes here or not, his focus ion East Palestine. Working across the aisle, Brown spoke with U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6, on Monday and some state officials about concerns and legislative ideas.
He also issued a joint release with U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, stating they sent a letter to the leaders of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control, urging them to ensure those affected by the derailment are able to access base-line medical testing, after learning some residents are finding their primary care doctors do not have the capability to do the testing.
“The residents of East Palestine and the surrounding community deserve to know if their health has been compromised by this disaster now and for years to come,” the letter stated. “Therefore, we urge you to work with your colleagues across the federal government to allocate the resources and expertise needed to begin the surveys and assessments needed to establish a medical baseline for the community.”
Throughout the past week, those needing evaluation have been able to go to the Health Assessment Clinic at the First Church of Christ, which no longer requires an appointment and is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Friday; as well as noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.
At the end of Brown’s press conference, an East Palestine resident came to ask about how to get the codes doctors can use for the lab tests for the chemicals of concern following the derailment. Brown assured her they were working to make sure assessments can be done.
Gov. Mike DeWine’s office said Monday that the Ohio Department of Development has a number of programs to support small businesses in Ohio. Businesses impacted by the train derailment are encouraged to email [email protected] for more information.
Copyright 2023 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.