Downtown businesses wait and hope

A large swath of downtown Sun Prairie remained closed Wednesday in the wake of a natural gas explosion Tuesday evening. It's unclear when many of the downtown businesses in the blast zone will reopen.

SUN PRAIRIE — Some businesses are gone. Others are damaged.

But even for those business owners whose windows and brickwork remain intact from Tuesday’s natural gas explosion, they have no idea when they’ll be able to reopen and what the economic toll will be on Sun Prairie’s historic downtown, part of which has been destroyed.

Many consulted Wednesday with insurance agents checking on loss-of-business coverage and preparing for possible damage claims. But it’s all being done from afar as much of the downtown remains closed. It’s unclear when owners and their customers will be allowed to return.

“It’s really frustrating but I got as close as I could,” said Joe Van Tassel, owner of Cannery Wine Bar & Tasting Room. “We don’t have glass shattered but our main sign looked like it popped off the side of the building. We have no idea what the inside looks like. I’m hoping that it’s all good but ... you don’t know what the structural situation is going to be.”

The Barr House and Glass Nickel Pizza across the street were destroyed when officials said a construction crew struck a natural gas main.

The blast killed Cory Barr, a captain on the Sun Prairie Volunteer Fire Department, who along with his wife, Abby, purchased the bar in 2016. Another firefighter was seriously injured, as were several civilians. Buildings around the blast site had windows blown out, facades damaged and signs wrecked.

The losses inside many businesses may not be known for days. Dan Donoghue, who along with his wife opened he Chocolate Caper at 107 N. Bristol St. in November, said from photos and videos on social media he could see windows blown out of his 875-square-foot shop that serves as a second outlet for their store in Oregon.

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Downtown businesses wait and hope

Dan Donoghue, co-owner of Chocolate Caper, shows off a tray of chocolates in December at the company's new store in Sun Prairie. Donoghue said Wednesday he is uncertain when he'll be able to reopen his shop after a natural gas explosion rocked the city's downtown.

Donoghue assumes all of his inventory in his Sun Prairie shop, located across the street from the Barr House, is damaged from smoke and shards of glass. He has been told by officials it could be more than a week before he and his staff are allowed back into the business.

“The shock waves probably knocked down a lot of stuff. I feel very lucky that our staff wasn’t there,” Donoghue said. “Our heart just goes out to the Barr family. The loss of business doesn’t matter. There are people who got hurt in this and lost life in this and that’s just so much more consequential.”

Much of the development focus in this fast-growing city — where there is talk of building a second high school — has been on its west side. That’s where, since 2009, the Shoppes at Prairie Lakes has drawn major retailers like Target, Costco, Cabela’s and a Woodman’s Market.

A $24 million Hilton Garden Inn and Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse is being built and on Tuesday, Eau Claire-based Menards opened a massive store across the street from where an elementary school is under construction.

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Businesses wait and hope

Kate & Co., a gift shop, and the Piano Gal Shop are among the newer offerings in downtown Sun Prairie.

But the historic downtown, located just north of Angell Park Speedway, has undergone a resurgence in recent years. The Piano Gal Shop and Kate & Co. and restaurants like Salvatore’s Tomato Pies are bolstering longtime businesses like Prairie Flower & Gifts, Sun City Cyclery & Skates and Market Street Diner & Bakery.

Right Bauer Brewery is scheduled to open in August in what had been a Greek restaurant at 239 E. Main St., while just south of Market Street Diner, the more than 7,000-square-foot Full Mile Beer Co. & Kitchen is under construction. The downtown is also home to tree lightings at Christmas, parades, wine walks and, every Feb. 2, an appearance by Jimmy the Groundhog.

“Were trying to grow businesses and grow the downtown,” said Van Tessel, who is also vice chair of the Sun Prairie Chamber of Commerce. “It’s very important to get people to come down to an area that has a lot of history and you want to keep that classic feel.”

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Businesses wait and hope

In a view looking northwest from above, the aftermath of a gas explosion in downtown Sun Prairie is seen Wednesday. At the lower center of the image is the site of the former Barr House where the explosion originated and leveled the building.

Ann Smith has been president of the Chamber for 18 years. Her office is just a few doors down from the blast site and was closed when the explosion happened. She has not been in her office but has received messages of support from other chambers around the state and praised the community for its support.

Prairie Lanes is offering free bowling to families displaced by the blast and relief accounts are being set up to help those financially strapped by Tuesday’s events.

A GoFundMe campaign for the Barr family quickly exceeded its $75,000 goal, with $10,000 donations from J.J. Watt, Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, and American Family Insurance.

“That is very uplifting and speaks a lot of our community,” Smith said. “But looking at the drone footage on the Internet makes me sick to my stomach … and the firefighter that died ... it’s just awful. It’s just devastating.”

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Barry Adams covers regional and business news for the Wisconsin State Journal.