Jeremy Elswick knew the June 2016 flood was serious when customers called him asking to sleep on his gym's yoga mats.
Elswick, owner of the 24-hour gym Anytime Fitness at Elkview's Crossings Mall, said his employees were able to leave the shopping center safely before floodwater washed out the culvert bridge and prevented a safe exit. But a handful of gym members were still stranded in the Crossings Mall parking lot. Elswick allowed them to stay at the gym until the floodwaters subsided.
“It's something to be thankful for that they could get in the facility with their member key,” Elswick said. “We were glad they were protected during such a crisis.”
But that ordeal was just the beginning for Elswick's business. The bridge, connecting hundreds of West Virginians to their livelihoods, remained untouched, the culvert uncrossable. The shopping center owner entered bankruptcy, sparking legal battles and delaying those repairs until a federal bankruptcy judge approved a bridge financing plan.
Elswick endured months of draining his savings, pulling loans from wherever he could and working with the state unemployment office to make sure his employees were taken care of.
Soon, Elswick and his gym should be able to return to pre-flood normalcy. The new bridge is expected to be ready to cross in July and, despite months of uncertainty, the large majority of businesses open before the flood will return.
Twenty-three of the 26 businesses open at Crossings Mall when the June 23, 2016, flood occurred are expected to reopen, according to representatives of the businesses and rent documents from Crossings Mall owner Tara Retail Group.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said the return of the large majority of Crossings Mall businesses is “a testament to the resiliency of the Elkview community.”
“That is going to relieve the suffering of a lot of people,” he said. “It's going to allow folks to have the convenience of a shopping center again.”
John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University, said the amount of stores reopening is a “definitely happy” event, considering how long the businesses had to endure without a revenue stream from the location. The revived job opportunities also are welcome, in a state that has experienced thousands of jobs lost in recent years, he added.
But the returning tenants will be without many of those they employed when the flood hit. Several businesses were forced to cut ties with employees as the bridge work was continually delayed. In April, the Kanawha County Commission said more than 500 people who worked at Crossings Mall were still unemployed.
To aid in hiring efforts, Goodwill Industries is hosting a Crossings Mall Job Fair at the Goodwill Prosperity Center, in Charleston, which is expected to be held July 9-15, according to Kathy McKinley, Goodwill's Kanawha Valley director of community relations. The center offers employers private interviewing spaces and access to online job applications, she said.
Kroger will be looking for 15 people to fill new positions created with the remodel of its Crossings Mall location. About 100 of those employed at the location before the flood were transferred to other Kroger stores.
Many of the roughly 85 employees at the Crossings Mall Kmart also were transferred to other stores as a temporary fix, but the retail department store chain laid off those employees in February as the location remained unreachable eight months after the flood. The store plans to reopen “in or around September,” after refurbishing the sales floor, spokesman Howard Riefs said.
Kmart owner Sears Holdings has closed several Kmart and Sears stores in the past year, including an anchor Sears location at the Charleston Town Center mall, as the company is struggling amid drastic changes in the retail sector.
Tara Retail has not received any notice from Bob Evans that its restaurant will be closing, according to Steven Thomas, an attorney representing Tara Retail. No notice has been made for Bob Evans' reopening, either, but Thomas noted that the company is still a paying tenant, citing a Crossings Mall post-flood rent roll. Messages to Bob Evans' communications department were not returned. The restaurant's roughly 40 employees were sent letters about a month after the flood saying they would no longer be employed at the location. In August last year, a Bob Evans spokeswoman said the company was unsure if it would reopen the location.
The three businesses confirmed to not be returning to Crossings Mall are Rent-A-Center, Classic Styles Salon and Day Spa, and Shoe Show. Rent-A-Center spokeswoman Gina Hethcock said customers “are welcome to visit one of our stores in Charleston.” In a Facebook post last October, Classic Styles said it would be closing after 21 years in business.
“With all things considered, we have decided not to renew our lease with the Crossings Mall Plaza,” said the post, which is attributed to former owner Dawn Elmore and office manager Makala Elmore.
Shoe Show is counted among those that will not reopen, but Thomas said he wasn't sure if that location had closed before the 2016 flood. Messages to Shoe Show spokespeople were not returned.
Thomas said the rest of the tenants are still on the post-flood rent roll, indicating that they are expected to return.
Elswick said he worked to keep his Anytime Fitness open because of his outlook on life, which changed after his father, Michael, was killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster of 2010.
“We got settlement funds, and people were so willing to give back to our family,” Elswick said. “I wanted to give back to my community in the same way. Having a gym facility where everyone can feel comfortable and encourage a healthy lifestyle is my way of doing that.”
Elswick said he has been scrambling to get the gym prepared and original employees back on board in hopes of an August opening. Rebuilding the location's rapport with the community, when it once numbered 800 strong in membership, will be difficult, Elswick said. But it's better than no gym at all.
“It's a major relief,” he said. “I'm just excited to get the gym running again and connect with the community again.”
Staff writers Caity Coyne and Kayla Asbury contributed to this report.
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