EAST PALESTINE — Prayers, well wishes and donations continue to pour into the community, but Mindy Juliana and Donna Heitzman wanted to support the town in a different way.
The two walked the downtown Tuesday, opening their wallets — and their hearts — to local business owners. The story doesn’t seem particularly unusual until you consider where they’re from.
Juliana, of Fairbanks, Alaska, and Heitzman, of Syracuse, New York, are friends who hadn’t seen each other in 10 years. Juliana flew to Cleveland this week for a work conference and the two met up, with the specific goal of visiting the community still reeling from a Feb. 3 train derailment.
“People all over the world know what happened here, and we’re just American citizens who care,” Juliana said. “It’s a lovely town.”
The two visited a site near the derailment, had a meal at Sprinklz on Top and walked up and down North Market Street.
“We’ve been shopping all day,” Heitzman said. “We wanted to buy something at every store.”
The friends bought three shirts at Manetta’s Furniture and Decor, 77 N. Market St., a gesture owner Melissa James appreciates, as foot traffic is usually slow this time of year, she said.
Heidi Shiderly of Enon Valley, Pa., makes the 10-minute drive to East Palestine several times a week to shop. She lived in East Palestine 30 years ago, knows many shop owners and said she’s worried people will avoid the area because of negative press, rumors or because they’re scared.
Shiderly often shops with her mom. They start at one end of town and stop by businesses for meals, to buy goods or just to say “hello.”
The evacuation order was lifted Feb. 8, and since then, Shiderly and her mom have shopped East Palestine 27 times.
“It’s a nice town with nice people,” she said. “It always has been and always will be.”
The residents and business owners are warm, friendly people, Shiderly said, adding that East Palestine has a “small town feel” that many people long for. She thinks it would be great if families living outside East Palestine made the drive in for a day to support stores and restaurants.
Business owners, some who are hurting, would love that too, she said, adding: “They’re just nice, good people … make the drive and see for yourself.”
The East Palestine Chamber of Commerce will host a Spring Fling from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 8 in town. Breakfast with the Easter bunny and a Chinese auction will be held in the community center, 31 Park Ave. Treat bags will be given out to the first 100 children to attend. Many of the businesses in town will have offers and sales, and officials are hoping to boost business and get people back out in the community. Manetta’s will host an adult Easter egg hunt and prizes will include discounts that can be used in store.
East Palestine chamber officials and Mayor Trent Conaway did not respond to inquiries to discuss the economic impact from the derailment.
Guy Coviello, president/ CEO of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce, however, said the chamber’s foundation is planning events to help the retail businesses in East Palestine with “Shop East Palestine Days” to be scheduled shortly starting in April.
“We want to do what we can to help the retail establishments in East Palestine,” Coviello said.
The eastbound Norfolk Southern train carried hazardous chemicals, and a controlled burn was initiated to avoid an explosion, officials have said. The town was evacuated and businesses closed for several days.
The company has promised to make things right in the community and James said a company representative purchased 20 shirts from her.
Joy Mascher, owner of Flowers Straight From the Heart, 99 N. Market St., said Norfolk Southern bought flowers and vases from her and donated them to nursing homes. She said she missed out on a lot of Valentine’s Day business but hopes to bounce back with prom and Mother’s Day coming up.
“Hopefully, we won’t be forgotten about,” she said.
John Myers, manager of T&M Hardware & Rental, 193 E. Taggart St., has seen an uptick in business from both residents and workers in town for cleanup. Patty Zocolo, coordinator for Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in town, stopped in last week to buy all the five-gallon buckets at T&M and planned to fill them with cleaning supplies donated from a Michigan company.
She said Rich Ferris, grand knight with the local Knights of Columbus, would be distributing the buckets of supplies on a first come, first served basis, and that the two were happy to buy local. “I know these guys have to be hurting a little,”she said.
Tom Brittain, owner of Brittain Motors, 57 E. Martin St., grew up in East Palestine, where his grandfather started the company 98 years ago. He said he sees hope in his community and believes Norfolk Southern is keeping its promise. Good things are happening in town, despite all the negative and “sensational” press it got when reporters from national and overseas news organizations were around, he explained.
“We’re doing OK,” he said. “I have no doubt that everything will return to near normal.”
Juliana and Heitzman said their purpose in visiting was to reflect on the derailment and send out compassion to the community. They even popped in to thank Fire Chief Keith Drabick and his staff for the work they did in the derailment’s aftermath.
“So many lives were affected by this,” she said. “This is any town, America.”