After nearly a month of working to replace smoke-damaged merchandise, Old Market boutique owner Cindy Hoover finally is open for business today.
Hoover's shop, the All About Me women's boutique at 419 S. 11th St., had been closed since Jan. 9, when a gas-fed fire ravaged the building across the street from her shop that housed M's Pub and Nouvelle Eve.
Now, she and other Old Market merchants' worries have shifted to a new problem: Will customers return?
While gawkers looking to see the burned wreckage of the former M's Pub building have frequented the intersection of 11th and Howard Streets, the heart of the business district remains closed to traffic.
That traffic hassle — and closed side walks — has taken some of the bustle out of the Old Market, business owners say. Since the fire, shoppers and diners have been sparse. The cold weather and snow haven't helped.
"The whole Old Market isn't closed. And a lot of people think that," Hoover said. "I've had a lot of people approach me and say, 'Oh, my gosh, is there anything open down there?' "
Scooter's Coffeehouse at 12th and Howard Streets is seeing the lack of traffic in its bottom line. Store manager Theo Skipper said the store went from making about $1,000 in sales per day before the fire to $500 to $700 per day now.
"These are our slower months compared to other months, but it's significantly slower than what it was last year," Skipper said.
Mo Tajvar, owner of Omaha Prime restaurant, can relate. He said nearly all retail businesses within a two-block radius of the site of the fire have been suffering.
"When people cannot get to your place and they have to go through a maze to get to your place, you lose business," Tajvar said. His restaurant, at 415 S. 11th St., is across the street from the former M's Pub.
His best regulars still come, but visits from passers-by, and all-important out-of-town visitors — many of whom would arrive on hotel shuttles — have dropped sharply, he said.
Tajvar put up banners and signs, letting potential diners know the restaurant is open and how to get there. He also has called every hotel nearby to let them know the restaurant is open. Some had stayed away because of the closed streets.
He said he had no idea when the intersection at 11th and Howard might reopen, or how soon a decision will be made on the fate of the damaged building.
"Nobody tells us anything," he said. "Nobody knows what's going on. I have a lot of sympathy for the businesses that people lost in the fire, but pretty much nobody understands that the rest of the businesses in the market, from A to Z, have been suffering," Tajvar said.
Omaha City Planning Superintendent Jay Davis said he has no definitive timeline on when the intersection might open.
The 11th and Howard intersection is closed now, Davis said, because it's uncertain whether the M's Pub building is structurally sound. If the building were to collapse, Davis doesn't want people nearby.
The city is waiting on a report from structural engineers hired by Mercer Management to decide how to move forward — whether to shore up the building, if necessary, or to demolish part of it.
"If I had my way about it, it'd be done this afternoon," Davis said of a decision on the building and a reopening of the intersection.
Mark Mercer, who runs Mercer Management with family members and owns a good chunk of the Old Market — including the M's building — didn't respond to telephone messages left at his office. Davis said the Mercers' plan is to salvage the building and rebuild.
In the meantime, even a couple of blocks from the 11th Street intersection, the effects of the fire still are being felt.
Katie O'Connor, owner of O'Connor's Irish Pub at 13th and Howard Streets, said the fire has added a double whammy to a business district that already was struggling with new parking rules.
"Now, you have two reasons not to come down," she said.
Allison Koba, manager at Souq Ltd. in the Old Market Passageway, said she noticed traffic falling off in November, before the fire, when the city extended parking meter hours until 9 p.m. Things have only gotten worse since the fire, she said.
O'Connor said that since the November parking meter change, business has been down about 50 percent every month over the previous year. And it's taken another hit from the fire.
She would have hired some of the restaurant employees displaced by the fire, she said, but instead she's cutting back on staff.
Looking ahead, O'Connor said she was worried about the April shareholders meeting of Berkshire Hathaway. It draws thousands of people to Omaha and the Old Market every year. Will they make the trek to the Market if roads and sidewalks are closed?
Hoover, the owner of All About Me boutique, wondered the same thing about potential customers.
"Maybe they don't want to see the big black hole," she said of the fire site. "I don't mean to make it sound negative, but sometimes if things aren't pretty, people don't want to go."
On Thursday afternoon, a huge pile of snow sat in the middle of the 11th and Howard intersection, remnants from Tuesday's snowstorm. Only a handful of people, most Old Market residents or employees, walked determinedly to their destinations. Most sidewalks were not clear of ice and snow.
Leslie and Joe Chmelka, on the other hand, said they wouldn't let the cold or fire damage keep them away. The couple from Cedar Bluffs, Nebraska — near Fremont — enjoyed a carrot cake cupcake from Cupcake Omaha and were headed to lunch.
Still, they noticed the lack of street life.
"It's a ghost town. It's sad," Leslie said. "I've never seen the sidewalks this empty."
The Chmelkas said they try to come down once or twice a month for lunch and shopping. Often, they would dine at M's Pub and Leslie would shop at Nouvelle Eve afterward.
It was the first time they had been back since the fire, and when the car turned onto Howard Street, Leslie said she was shocked.
"We'll keep coming down, but it's going to take more than that."