Hillsboro picking up the pieces after downtown fires
When she saw photos online of flames bursting through the roof of the Weil Arcade in downtown Hillsboro early Sunday morning, Jan. 2, Kathy Schmidlkofer thought all was lost.
"It was showing a wall of fire, and I'm thinking, 'There's no way they're going to save the pharmacy,'" Schmidlkofer said.
To Schmidlkofer's amazement, firefighters prevented a blaze that ripped through the historic Weil Arcade building early Sunday from spreading next door into the Hillsboro Pharmacy and Fountain — Hillsboro's oldest continuously operating business, located at 243 E Main St. — which Schmidlkofer manages.
Eight businesses in Hillsboro's downtown core were displaced by the fire, according to Hillsboro Fire & Rescue officials. Many of their physical spaces were completely destroyed.
Eleven other businesses were otherwise impacted — such as by heat, smoke or water damage — and may require repairs and cleaning before being able to reopen, fire officials say.
An additional 18 businesses were affected by access restrictions due to firefighting efforts or lost power, according to officials.
Investigators have not yet determined a cause of the fire, said Piseth Pich, spokesperson for Hillsboro Fire & Rescue, on Tuesday afternoon.
Firefighters are still treating the area surrounding the structures directly impacted by the fire as an active scene, working to put out spot fires from behind a fence put up for safety.
But by Tuesday, Schmidlkofer was among the employees and business owners on Main Street able to go back inside their establishments to assess the damage and start thinking about how to move forward.
"We've got an awful lot of work cut out for us ahead," Schmidlkofer said.
The pharmacy, which was founded in 1873, sustained substantial smoke and water damage, as firefighters used copious amounts of water trying to extinguish the flames next door.
The business has been a community gathering place for decades, serving milkshakes and breakfast from the counter of the soda fountain to an aging group of regulars, who often pick up prescriptions in the back after their meal.
The date of the fire, Jan. 2, was Schmidlkofer's 37th anniversary of working at the Hillsboro Pharmacy and Fountain, she said.
Joking that she hopes next year's anniversary is less eventful, she said she was reminded of the anniversary date months ago while celebrating the retirement of former Hillsboro Pharmacy owner Doug Johnson, who operated the business for more than 40 years.
On Tuesday, Johnson came into the pharmacy to help, delivering a few prescriptions that had been filled before the fire to people, because customers can't come into the building, he said.
"Up until the fire, I was enjoying retirement," Johnson said with a laugh.
More seriously, she added: "It's really heart-wrenching. Having worked here and built this up for 40 years, the one big hope was that it was going to carry on. This makes for a really tough challenge, but I think they'll be able to come through this."
Jasmine Nguyen, who purchased the Hillsboro Pharmacy last summer, said Tuesday that she was just starting to feel settled at the new location before the fire.
"It took some time for us to adjust, and now this happens," said Nguyen, who also runs two other pharmacies in Portland.
Nguyen said she's focused on trying to have the pharmacy back up and running at a temporary location in Hillsboro by the end of the week, adding that she was waiting on official lease paperwork from a property manager.
Most, if not all, of the pharmacy's medications, were left unusable from the smoke and water damage, Nguyen said. She plans to be able to stock the temporary location with medications from her other pharmacy locations.
Nguyen said there's also an urgency to open a temporary location so that the pharmacy can start administering COVID-19 vaccines that had been scheduled.
She's working to coordinate with people who had scheduled vaccines to deliver them at their homes, Nguyen said, adding that the pharmacy will continue providing vaccines at residential care facilities.
In the aftermath of the fire, business leaders, city officials and community members have rallied to support those who were affected.
"If there's a silver lining in this, I think it's seeing how much the community is supporting us and gathering around and asking, 'What can we do to help?'" Schmidlkofer said. "It's really pretty amazing."
On Monday morning, the nonprofit Hillsboro Downtown Partnership hosted a virtual meeting for affected businesses to ask questions and find resources, and for community members interested in helping to hear what people needed. More than 80 people attended the meeting.
EJ Payne, director of the partnership, said her organization, the Washington County Chamber of Commerce and the Hillsboro Community Foundation have been working continuously to help businesses that lost everything, as well as those that suffered less catastrophic effects.
"People have been asking: 'What happens with mail or packages being delivered?,' or, 'How do we get our gas turned back on?'" Payne said. "I've been telling people, don't wait to start writing down everything you can remember you had in your business for insurance."
One focus, Payne said, has been on working with the entire business community to find space in nearby establishments where affected business owners can set up temporary locations.
"We've had all hands on deck to relocate and match up businesses with spaces that they can pop-up in," Payne said, adding that it's crucial for affected businesses to try to generate revenue any way they can.
Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway said it's characteristic of Hillsboroans to offer their time and resources to help those impacted by a tragedy.
He said it's been heartening to see people not only offering support to businesses affected by the Jan. 2 fire, but also to the 17 residents displaced by a fire in an apartment building on East Main Street the day before.
"I think there's a strong resolve to support each other and help each other move forward, not just short-term, but in the long run as well," Callaway said.
He added that he thinks the widespread support he has seen in the community partly comes from the valued history of Hillsboro's Main Street.
"Main Street is the heart and soul of the city," Callaway said, noting that it's the site of parades, festivals and other events. "Whether you're a new resident or you've lived here for decades, everybody has their favorite thing, their favorite memory about Main Street."
Deanna Palm, chief executive of the Washington County Chamber, said the community support has given affected business owners she has talked to a feeling of optimism.
"I don't think people are feeling at all like, 'This is the end,'" Palm said. "I think they're feeling like, 'Let's marshal these resources again and figure out what our next steps are,' and we're going to move together."
Palm acknowledged that the past two years of the pandemic have been the among the hardest times for any business in recent memory.
But she said the length of the pandemic has allowed organizations like the Chamber to figure out ways to efficiently respond to crises. She added that businesses have gained a lot of resiliency during the pandemic.
Palm said she is directing any community members who want to help people affected by both fires over the weekend to donate to the Hillsboro Community Foundation's Community Relief Fund.
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