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After fire, boardwalk businesses face stark choices

The upper deck of the Beachcomber night club suffered damage from flying embers, even though it was north of the trench cut into the boardwalk to stop the fire.(Photo: Tom Spader, Asbury Park Press)ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Boardwalk business owners in New Jersey have begun to assess the damage caused by a devastating fire a little more than 10 months after they were forced to rebuild after Superstorm Sandy.
As firefighters in Seaside Park and Seaside Heights continued to pour water on their stores Friday, all they could do is consider the odds that they would need to start over once again.
"Everyone is kind of (thinking), 'Now what? What's next?'" said Bill Wutzer, 74, of Seaside Park, who lost one of his three boardwalk businesses, Seaside Steak House & Clam Bar, in the fire. "At this point, there aren't any answers."
The fire that tore through the boardwalk claimed 30 or more businesses that are synonymous with summers at the Jersey Shore — clam bars, pizza shops, arcades and concessions. The damage to the boardwalk alone is expected to be at least $1.88 million.
The fire forced business owners to once again brace for the financial and emotional toll it would take to rebuild. Or, in some cases, not rebuild.
The fire struck less than a year after many of them saw their businesses flooded by Sandy — a disaster that left them cobbling together money from their savings, loans, grants and insurance proceeds. On Friday, they were again listening to an all-too-familiar pledge from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that he would convene state agencies to come up with a plan to help them recover.
Like Sandy, the fire hit at the end of the summer tourism season, giving businesses plenty of time to rebuild.
But time isn't the problem. Money is.
FunTown Pier, devastated by the fire, had previously applied to the state to expand. But the fire may hinder its plan. The business might not be able to find insurance, said Greg McLaughlin, general manager.
'Worse than Sandy'
Hasham Khan, owner of Quick Stop Convenience Store and Street Corner, two businesses for which not even frames remain, said he didn't have insurance and doubted whether others along the boardwalk did either.
"This is worse than Sandy," he said.
Businesses took to social media to alert their customers about their fate. The Beachcomber Bar & Grill left no doubt, posting photos of its charred restaurant on its Facebook page, the floor a mix of ash and water. Kohr's Frozen Custard Inc., where the fire is believed to have started, said it lost all four stands.
"What can we say? Our hearts are broken," it posted in what was a common refrain.
Business owners, still numb, relived Thursday, the day of the fire. Angie Lombardi, who has owned Angie's Alley, an amusement business, for four years, said she got a text from a friend who said her machines might be on fire.
She drove to Seaside Park, arriving around 2:30 p.m., when the fire was modest. But just 10 minutes later, she knew her business was in trouble. Now her arcade games are gone, and she said she will have to wait on her landlord to see what happens next.
"Whatever the outcome is, you just have to work with (it)," Lombardi said.
John Earle Livingston, 58, who owns and operates several boardwalk businesses, estimated that he lost about $20,000.
His family has been a fixture on the boardwalk for the last eight decades. He lost everything, including old photos of the boardwalk, items of historical value and keepsakes from his mother, who died in 2006.
"I don't have anything to retrieve," he said.
Plans to reopen
Some business owners and their employees echoed the dust-yourself-off spirit they learned after Sandy.
Maruca's Tomato Pies was making plans to reopen, store manager Joe Maruca said, noting that the shop survived a fire in the 1980s.
And others took solace in small fortunes, the result of the hard work of firefighters.
"You look around and people have lost everything," said Daniel Shauger, manager of Funtown Arcade. "You could consider us to be one of the lucky ones," Shauger said. "We still have a building standing."
But for merchants who have spent the past year rebuilding from Sandy, and muddled through the slow summer that followed, the fire was demoralizing. Wutzer figured he spent as much as $80,000 of his own money repairing his three restaurants after Sandy. He was able to reopen Seaside Steak House & Clam Bar in April.
The shop burned down Thursday. Wutzer didn't have insurance for its contents, and he wasn't sure what his landlord would do. Yet on Friday, he was at Marathon Steakhouse in Seaside Heights, one of his restaurants that escaped the fire. It was open. And, from the sound of things, it would stay open.

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