The owner of Fat Matt’s Rib Shack remembers hearing helicopters and seeing smoke in the sky from his backyard on that early spring afternoon one year ago. Matt Harper wondered what was going on, so he went inside and turned on the television.
And there it was: A massive fire, fueled by construction materials, had caused a section of I-85 to collapse on March 30, 2017. It would be closed for a month and half, creating a void in the busy Atlanta road and making it significantly harder for patrons to get to Harper’s iconic barbecue and blues spot — along with every other business in the area.
“For six weeks, we found out what life would be like without Piedmont,” Harper told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution one day before what he called the “anniversary of the burning.”
His restaurant felt the economic impact immediately, with sales plummeting the day of the fire and staying that way until the bridge reopened in May.
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Even after the road was restored, though, things didn’t instantly return to normal. The final two quarters of last year were down, Harper said, which he thinks stemmed from people becoming accustomed to new routes and establishments and bypassing his restaurant.
“The whole thing changed people’s living patterns,” Harper said.
On the other side of the highway, SweetWater Brewing Company also experienced a decline that “lingered beyond the 42 days of construction,” according to spokesperson Tucker Berta Sarkisian.
"Tour attendance was absolutely impacted — even when traffic on surface streets around the brewery was light, the perception of terrible traffic throughout the Midtown and Buckhead areas kept people from venturing out,” she recalled.
The popular brewery made “the best of the situation” and celebrated with an “I Survived I-85” bridge reopening party in May, Sarkisian said. But attendance didn’t return to normal until after Sept. 1, when new laws allowing craft breweries to sell limited amounts of their beer directly to customers took effect.
Fat Matt’s has also rebounded. Harper said sales are now “back to where they should be.”
“All the indications are for the current year that things are normalizing,” Harper said, adding that the community got off pretty easy. No one was hurt or killed, and he “didn’t see any businesses collapse because of it.”
Employees at Orkin also marvel that no one was injured, spokeswoman Martha Craft said.
“Nonetheless, it was a bad situation for many people and a logistics challenge for our team, but we continued our business as usual,” she said. “Orkin technicians have navigated Atlanta streets for more than 90 years, so we know a back road or two!”
The company also “had some fun” by putting up a “Traffic Bites” sign, Craft said. The sign came down after the repair.
Nearly two weeks after the collapse, Tower Beer Wine & Spirits, a 70-year-old business with a store on Piedmont Road, surprised construction workers who were rebuilding the bridge with non-alcoholic refreshments and burgers donated by Grindhouse.
Owner Michael Greenbaum said he was thankful that the city and state moved quickly to fix the highway. He was also appreciative of “everyone who fought the traffic during that time to continue to shop with us.”
"In spite of a main artery of the city being down most of the conversation with our customers centered around their creativity in getting to us,” Greenbaum said. For Lindsay Berg, Tower’s marketing director, the bridge collapse “served as a reminder of how fortunate we are to have Atlanta as our home.”
“Folks reaching out to check on the people at their local package store isn't a response you necessarily expect after a disaster, Berg said, but they were “amazed by how many of our customers called us, emailed us and tweeted at us asking if we were safe after the collapse.”
Business owners hope that nothing like this ever happens again — something Georgia officials say they’re doing their best to prevent. As for the 2017 incident, most maintained a resilient attitude.
“It flipped us on our ear,” Harper said. “You just gotta take things as they roll."