NORTH ANDOVER — Officials huddled outside Rose & Dove Gift Shop on Tuesday morning to detail a new regional marketing campaign that will boost small businesses still struggling from the Sept. 13 gas disaster. They also provided an update on business recovery efforts.
The campaign, called Rock the Register, is aimed at helping local businesses get attention and bringing customers back to local shops. Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera said the initiative is funded through $10 million from Columbia Gas for economic development in the three impacted communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.
The campaign offers a number of incentives and sweepstakes to get people out shopping, and also encourages patrons to spread the word on social media. According to the website, each week, one person in each community will be awarded $500 to shop local.
“People always ask ‘Is it over? Is everything fixed?’” Rivera said. “And I always tell people I’m not sure it’ll be over until some of the last scars in the streets are fixed, but more importantly, until people feel they have been made whole, and we are far from that today. Hopefully this effort makes them feel a little more whole.”
Rivera said the plan will help improve foot traffic and bring more attention to small businesses.
“No longer are we focused just on recovery, but on efforts that will promote our local and regional business community,” said Andover Town Manager Andrew Flanagan.
He said the campaign is consistent with the efforts to build stronger, more vibrant communities following the disaster.
“The efforts today show the power of collaboration in the Merrimack Valley, and illustrates the collective capabilities of our partners across the region,” Flanagan said. “We now focus on celebrating our businesses in the Merrimack Valley.”
Roughly 70% of the 900 small businesses impacted by the disaster have returned to their state prior to the explosions. Derek Mitchell, executive director of the Lawrence Partnership, said the other 30% say they are not yet whole because their customers have not returned.
“We always understood this to be a multi-year process,” Mitchell said. “We are now 10 months in and we think we’ve reached a threshold, but we also recognize we need to double-down and continue to work moving forward.”
Rose & Dove Gift Shop was a local business that closed for days following the explosions, operated without heat for months, and had its entrance blocked for weeks due to restoration work, said owner Kellee Twadelle, who started her business 14 years ago.
Outside her shop, she spoke of the difficulties small business owners endured over the past year.
“Although we were only closed for three days, the repercussions of that crisis continue today, 10 months later,” Twadelle said. “For so many residents in Andover, Lawrence and here in North Andover, when you can’t even take a shower at home, or drop your kids off to day care, the last thing people are thinking about is shopping locally... We are not easily defeated. We were knocked down, but we’re not out.”
Rivera said the claims process remains the biggest obstacle for impacted businesses.
“To get 100% what they asked for from Columbia Gas, they’re not getting that,” he said. “They’re getting less than 100% because the claims process isn’t really set up to be advantageous to small businesses, or frankly to anyone, because they’re looking to make the least amount of payouts as possible.”
For some small business owners like Maria Lopez, owner of Curiosity in Lawrence, she said it feels like things aren’t going to return to normal any time in the near future.
“We thought at this time everything was going to be back to its role,” Lopez said after the press conference. “And it doesn’t look like it’s going to be soon, either. ... This is going to have a repercussion for (longer) than we thought.”
She fears the traffic caused from restoration work is going to steer customers away from her store on South Broadway, and into cities like Methuen, or towns in New Hampshire to shop.
Though the new campaign hopes to return small businesses to normalcy, Congresswoman Lori Trahan said the work still continues.
“Our work is not done,” she said. “Repairing our infrastructure and improving safety to ensure another incident like this never happens again remains our top priority.”