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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

In downtown Santa Rosa, roughly half the customers at the women’s fashion shop S.H.E. formerly lived in the city’s upscale Fountaingrove neighborhood.

The proprietors of the Fourth Street boutique have heard story after story from clients who fled for their lives from a historic firestorm, leaving behind homes and possessions to burn in Fountaingrove and nearby areas of Sonoma County.

“We’ve been crying and crying and crying,” said Deborah Cali, who owns the store with Nancy Blasingame.

Sales at the 12-year-old store remained flat in October compared to a year earlier and have declined nearly 4 percent to date in November, the owners said. But many other local retailers are experiencing far worse.

“They need clothes,” Blasingame said in explaining why customers with burned homes returned to the store. Even so, patrons generally have been cautious in their purchases, she said, and often are likely to restock their wardrobes with basic attire purchased at discount stores.

As the holiday season kicks off this week, business and civic leaders are trying to understand how the county’s retail landscape has changed after the most devastating wildfires in U.S. history. Many are joining with Sonoma County merchants in urging residents to shop local, especially this holiday season, as a means of saving jobs and helping retailers bounce back.

“This is such a critical time for so many small businesses,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

The fires that broke out Oct. 8 killed 23 people and destroyed 5,100 homes in the county. In Santa Rosa alone, the blazes damaged or destroyed 29 businesses, including a Kmart discount store, a Trader Joe’s supermarket, three hotels and several restaurants.

A Kohl’s department store still stands on Airway Drive, but will stay closed until early spring as the company assesses fire-related damage, a spokeswoman said last week. No further details were given on the damage to the northwest area store, which sits across a parking lot from three wrecked eateries belonging to Arby’s, McDonald’s and Applebee’s.

Natural disasters often bring immediate losses to retailers, but the impact also can throw off the normal shopping patterns in the following holiday season, said Britt Beemer, CEO of America’s Research Group of Summerville, South Carolina. Beemer gave a general rule for all sorts of disasters, including hurricanes, tornadoes and floods: “Of the volume that you lose, you never recapture more than 15 percent.” Thus, if sales drop by $200,000 during the disaster, a store will earn back only about $30,000 of that lost business.

When the next Black Friday comes along, buying trends in the affected areas can further change in two ways. First, those directly harmed often pull back from holiday shopping.

“If your home is not livable, there will never be another Christmas like this, because you basically cut your buying down to bare essentials,” Beemer said.

Second, those less affected also may change their holiday spending in order to help the suffering. He recalled a Florida community where retail spending declined more than 15 percent during the holiday season after a hurricane hit near Orlando. Many consumers chose to provide gift cards or other donations to those who were hurting, rather than purchase items on their own wish lists.

“We’re not going to buy this for us,” Beemer said of the thinking by those who escaped the brunt of the hurricane. “We’re going to buy it for them.”

For the nation’s retailers, this year’s outlook appears strong for the nearly five-week period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. It should be the best holiday season in a decade for savvy retailers, Beemer projected, and the International Council of Shopping Centers has forecast an overall sales gain of 3.8 percent from a year earlier.

In Sonoma County, the wildfires initially shut down both businesses and community institutions — closing schools, prompting the evacuation of two Santa Rosa hospitals and forcing tens of thousands to flee ahead of the flames.

Many retailers and other businesses didn’t open for days. The county’s two largest shopping centers, Santa Rosa Plaza and Coddingtown Mall, both stayed closed for two days, and many businesses within them still needed more time to reopen.

At Montgomery Village shopping center in Santa Rosa, merchants and restaurants mostly were open by the end of the week.

Initial store reports suggested a double-digit decline in October, said David Codding, the center’s owner. But complete results available Friday showed Montgomery Village sales dropped 4.5 percent last month from a year earlier, he said. For the year, sales to date increased less than 1 percent.

“We’re expecting a really good Christmas season,” Codding said, “and so far November looks very good.”

Among the center’s establishments, Fireside Stationery saw October sales decline more than 20 percent last month, said Nancy Kucich, who owns the store with her husband, Denny Wilson.

“November’s up a little bit, so it’s possible we might be able to make that back,” Kucich said.

At Corrick’s stationery and gifts in downtown Santa Rosa, owner Keven Brown and his family fled to the Fourth Street store in the fire’s early hours and there eventually housed four evacuated families, along with “four dogs, a cat and a tortoise.” In the days after the fires, he learned that seven artists whose works he carries had lost homes in the fire.

October sales at the 102-year-old store declined more than 20 percent. “We basically lost an entire week,” Brown said.

Holiday shopping in Santa Rosa may be a little more subdued this season, he said. But people will be seeking human contact, and both retailers and patrons likely will take a little more time to inquire about one another.

“Everyone has a story,” Brown said, “and those stories need to be told.”

In the fire’s aftermath, many retailers became more than mere places of business. Among the scores of examples:

Both Santa Rosa Plaza and Coddingtown set up drop-off locations for donations to the Salvation Army.

Local bicycle shops began assembling bikes to give away to every child who lost one in the fires, said Bike Peddler manager Chris Wells. The ongoing effort is in partnership with bike manufacturers and local groups like the King Ridge Foundation.

San Francisco-based Sports Basement allowed customers to purchase goods for 40 percent off and donate them to those burned out of their homes. The same discount was available at its Santa Rosa store for first responders, including many staying at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, who needed such items as jackets, socks and boots.

Montgomery Village and its merchants held a benefit concert that raised a total of $240,000, half of which was provided by the shopping center.

The county’s economy likely will benefit from a boost in spending in the coming months, economist Christopher Thornberg suggested Friday in a speech to the county’s civic and business leaders. Using examples from the 1994 Northridge earthquake and the 1992 Hurricane Andrew, Thornberg said the dollars spent in recovery generally help propel significant economic growth in the first year after a natural disaster.

Indeed, Thornberg, a founding partner of Beacon Economics in Los Angeles, said the greater economic threat is that enough homes won’t be rebuilt here, prompting workers to stay away from the county and leaving local companies unable to expand their businesses. Without more homes, he said, “the economy is simply going to stop growing.”

Nonetheless, some government and business groups are turning their immediate attention to efforts urging county residents to forgo online shopping this holiday season in favor of buying from companies that employ county residents. The promotion efforts generally are small in scale.

At the direction of county supervisors, the county Economic Development Board will spend up to $40,000 to work with local chambers of commerce and other groups on a social media “shop local” campaign.

Also, the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce has partnered with 34 downtown merchants to offer discounts available in a “Holiday Passport,” with a tagline of “I believe in Santa Rosa.” The passports first will be handed out Friday afternoon at the city’s Winter Lights gathering and show in Old Courthouse Square.

Raissa de la Rosa, the city’s economic development manager, said shopping local can help keep open businesses that have suffered economic injury.

“It’s the gift that keeps giving,” she said.

Doug Van Dyke, who owns E.R. Sawyer Jewelers in downtown Santa Rosa with his wife, Ame, noted that the store closed for just one day in 1906 when a historic earthquake leveled the town’s business district. This time, the 138-year-old business closed for two days.

Van Dyke said he has yet to calculate his losses and instead is busy providing copies of old purchase records for customers tallying up what they have lost, as well as supporting his jewelers as they examine salvaged, burned pieces to see which can be restored.

When he considered the future, he predicted that just as the community rebuilt once before, so it will do again.

“We’ll be stronger for it,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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