MARTA’s maintenance facility at Armour Yard sits near the portion of bridge that collapsed. A portion of I-85 remains closed because of Thursday’s fire and bridge collapse. Aerial photos shot March 31, 2017. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Businesses near I-85 closure optimistic despite decrease in revenue

Businesses located near the I-85 bridge collapse felt the economic impact immediately.

Surrounding companies, like Goodwill on Piedmont Road, were forced to close, and many that remained open saw a decrease in revenue. Repairs could take months.

But by Monday, many business owners and managers were optimistic about the long-term outlook.

Matt Harper, founder of iconic barbecue and blues spot Fat Matt’s Rib Shack on Piedmont Avenue NE, was even able to laugh about it when his manager pretended he didn’t know what happened to the highway.

“There’s nothing else you can do (but laugh),” Harper said.

Harper guessed sales were down by 30 percent Thursday and Friday, but doesn’t foresee needing to “modify” the number of his 35 employees.

“I think we’re in a good enough position,” Harper said. “Once the dust really does settle, it’s going to be a minimal impact at this point.”

MORE: So far, conventions unfazed by I-85 shutdown

Midtown Bowl’s general manager Mike Fortas acknowledged the difficulties, but suspects the detours may result in a “back-end benefit” for the area, allowing people to discover businesses they wouldn’t pass otherwise.

“I’m hoping the loss of revenue will turn into good marketing,” Fortas said.

The Piedmont Circle NE bowling alley lost business from one of its closest neighbors Thursday evening. Passion City Church, located at 515 Garson Drive – which was so close to the accident the fire alarms in the building went off – had to indefinitely postpone a party there for about 150 of its young volunteers.

The church is “by no means” grateful for the road closures, but realizes more people will drive by and be exposed to Passion City, said Brad Jones, pastor of the Garson Drive location.

“Good things come out of bad situations,” Jones said. “I believe that is part of God’s plan in the world.”

The first service after the fire was fairly normal, Jones said. The church added shuttles from the Lindbergh Center MARTA station, added more cops to direct traffic and provided a detour map for parishioners.

MORE: 7 things to know about the Atlanta I-85 bridge collapse

The owner of Buckhead Plating on Piedmont Road, Mark Shearon, is also keeping faith that things will work out. On a typical day the business sees between 20 and 30 customers. Since the collapse, it has had just three.

But Shearon isn’t worried.

“I’m the optimist on the street,” he said. “God will provide a way. We’ll be fine.”

The business, which has seven employees and has been around for decades, has never advertised and doesn’t plan to start now. It survived area road closures following the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing, and will survive this, Shearon said.

MORE: Atlanta evades gridlock but tragedies choke rush hour

Larger companies, meanwhile, have had to make significant adjustments.

Orkin pesticide, whose corporate headquarters sits along Piedmont Road, has adjusted schedules for its employees, letting them come in and leave earlier to avoid the heaviest rush-hour traffic, said spokeswoman Martha Craft.

In addition to its Piedmont Road location, Orkin operates two other sites — at I-85 and Shallowford and Chamblee-Tucker roads — near the bridge collapse.

The 581 employees at these sites are encouraged to carpool, with an internal website set up to connect commuting employees.

The company has also begun running a morning and evening employee shuttle to the Lindbergh MARTA station. An off-duty police officer now directs traffic to help people get into and out of the parking lot during rush hours.

By Monday afternoon, the businesses had even more reason for optimism when Piedmont Road was re-opened for traffic.

Over at Sweetwater Brewing Company, things are looking up after an initial worry about how the massive traffic disruption would affect distribution and production.

The company was preparing for the worst Friday, checking inventory and making backup plans in case shipments couldn’t get to the brewery, spokeswoman Tucker Berta Sarkisian said Tuesday. But traffic in the area was lighter than anticipated — Sarkisian suspects that’s because the city opened the Buford-Spring Connector and many commuters took MARTA or biked — and they don’t expect any delays going forward. 

In fact, the only reason Sweetwater’s shipping plan wasn’t perfectly on schedule Monday was because of challenges with power outages following the storms that rolled through Atlanta late last week.

“Sweetwater rolls with the punches — we’re a scrappy team. We stay nimble and make critical adjustments without wasting time,” Sarkisian wrote in an email. 

But even the popular brewery tours weren’t immune.

Tours on Friday and Saturday were lighter than normal, with Sunday numbers back on track, Sarkisian said. 

An average 400 to 600 people tour Sweetwater on Fridays and Sundays. Saturdays typically bring out about 1,000 people. 

Turnout Friday and Saturday was hundreds less than what the company usually sees.

As for Wednesday’s tour, they’re “hoping for the best.” 

Staff writers Ben Brasch and Janel Davis contributed to this story.

AJC editorial cartoonist Mike Luckovich comments on the latest fire and collapse of I-85. (Video and edit by Armani Martin/ AJC)

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