I knew I had to write about the fire at 9390 Ford Avenue, the strip mall on Clark Street and Ford Avenue in Richmond Hill. Dr. Gene Wallace owns the building that was destroyed around 5 a.m. on Sept. 15.
Gene spoke with me the following week, and this story is more about the amazing people it affected, and the word kindness keeps coming to mind.
Kind acts, not for reward nor recognition but to help, do the right thing, the essence of the Golden Rule on display. Gene immediately praised those who helped, the police, fire departments and neighbors.
Although the building was totaled or close to it, he concentrated on how wonderful the investigators were, the fine job the Richmond Hill, Bryan County and Chatham County Fire Departments did. He spoke of the “poor folks who lost their offices,” and of rebuilding for his tenants who considered coming back.
Wistfully, he told me he just redid the planting around the building, with flowers to make the building look fresh and then said, “no one got hurt, there’s nothing that can’t be replaced.” Gene told me he finished building the building in 2001 and had three tenants. For him, 20 years ago this was a “big nut” he supplemented from his practice to build. He hesitated for a moment, thinking, and then continued, “40 years ago when we came here I never imagined the success I would have in my dental practice.” Now a county commissioner, Wallace said his tenants are important to him. “The folks who rent from me are good folks, good tenants,” and I spoke to a number of them.
Dr. Tim Kelly, of Kelly Chiropractic, has the longest- running chiropractic clinic in the area. He said Dr. Wallace told him after the fire, “‘Anything you need.’ These are not just words, Gene means it. So I try to remain positive about things but I realize I have a lot to do.” Dr. Kelly was a first tenant. He saw the building when only the 2 X 4’s were up. He shook hands with Gene at the site on leasing from him, starting a 20 year relationship.
Goodness abounds. Dr. Randy Reisner, also a chiropractor, offered Dr. Kelly space in his office to use while he was out of town. Kevin Bowes, owner of Dynamic Tax and Business Services, was a tenant. When we spoke he said he was devastated, “can’t focus properly on work. I built this practice from the ground up and am at a standstill. My unit sustained smoke and water damage, ‘fried’ everything inexplicable.”
He said Gene was highly supportive, and Kevin immediately jumped in to help Dr. Kelly back up his drives to give him peace of mind, to take care of him. Joe Blendowski, the Postmaster, helped Kevin get client files safe, Randy Bocook, owner of Bocook Reality, offered temporary space to him. Now relocated temporarily in rental space in Richmond Hill he continues his work.
Rachael Bell, of Bell & Associates Counseling, told me the response from the community was overwhelming and that she’s grateful for the above and beyond response.
“In spite of the tragic losses for all, this situation, all the wonderful people have warmed my heart and brought tears to my eyes. I immediately looked for space, and thanks to help from the community found it at Richmond Hill Court.”
Daniel Humphries from the Carpet Store, across the street, helped empty out her space.
The police helped take out her 14 foot table from her conference room, a task that took seven people. “People, friends and strangers reached out to help even as the fire was still smoldering.”
“Gene is a friend and one of the best landlords a local business could ever have - nicest - there offering support to us, there for us. My next door neighbor in my community, gave me a two seater couch and helped set up my new office. My friends helped clean what was usable, an outpouring of love. What happened makes me know I will never leave Richmond Hill.”
Sue Nelson, a fund raiser and PR individual, does business with several who leased from Gene.
Involved in the community, she wanted to help and immediately began a fundraiser.
“Rebuild Richmond Hill” will be held Oct. 7 at the City Center, which is offering the space free as their donation. There will be a silent auction, bingo, dinner and giveaways.
“Put yourself in their shoes,” Nelson said.
When I last spoke to her over 50 businesses had donated for an auction, gave gift cards and the Downtown Development Authority is helping, donating gift cards from our local restaurants for the auction. Sue said they hope to raise at least $20,000. Tickets will range between $20-25 to help the businesses affected.
Katheryn Johnson, chief executive officer of the Bryan County Chamber of Commerce, immediately let her board know to be on standby to help. The Chamber conference rooms were offered for use, and Johnson immediately put feelers out for space.
Katheryn told me the business community was stepping up to help. The City Center offered upstairs spaces free until Oct. 8 if needed.
“This community is a family. It has and will jump in to help in multiple ways. It will always encourage, support, and, when needed, be a morale booster.” Mitch Shores, our chief of police, is kind, thoughtful and always the consummate professional. He told me he stood for a while with Dr. Wallace on one side of him, Dr. Kelly on the other on the morning of the fire.
As they stood quietly together he had one overriding thought, “I was so relieved and happy no one was injured. I was sorry for Dr. Wallace - hate for people to suffer a loss” He repeated again, “Hate it for people who suffered a loss, thankful no one was hurt.” He continued, “Gene was my dentist, such a likeable guy. He made going to the dentist halfway fun. I was and still am always happy to see him.”
Our fire chief, Brendon Greene’s first comment to me was about his concern for the business owners and that they lost a lot.
His team was quick and responsive getting in place, getting the water quickly on the building to stop the fire from going harder, faster. Bryan County and Chatham County were each part of the team.
He stressed the tremendous team effort.
This incident served as an example of “why we have automatic and mutual aid agreements,” Greene said. “We train together. Our truck with 3 aerial lifts allowed us to use strategies and tactics to save more. This truck is a blessing, vital in this fire. We could use tactics that we couldn’t have used otherwise. We were able to get gallons higher, quicker.”
“It was horrible, talked at the scene with many of the tenants. That building was them, their livelihood. We love this community, see them hurting, we hurt too.”
We finished talking as he said, “I live here, this is home. I love this community, the closeness, closeknit. There are friends, people I know and see everyday. My roots are here. I’m proud to be chief, be here.”
We often see and are told of a sense of disconnect between people so it’s special to bring this story to you.
It is clear that kindness and civil behavior go hand in hand. Random acts of kindness and compassion help keep us connected and show what a special place Richmond Hill is.
Thank you all for being Heroes of the Hill.
Georgene Brazer is chairwoman of the Richmond Hill Downtown Development Authority and a Ford resident. She can be reached at georgenebrazer@ gmail.com.