VILONIA — "I know you need help now," said Vilonia Mayor James Firestone, addressing a roomful of business owners, Monday morning, who have been severely affected by the tornado. Currently, 90percent or more of the business owners in the city have completely lost their livelihood. Others have damaged property causing revenue streams to be shut down and employees to be laid off. Some business owners had no insurance. Others said they didn’t have enough insurance.
"I want you guys to have hope," Firestone said. "We are in a bad situation here but we want you all here."
Firestone talked about the "gap" between the time the businesses can get up and running and the money that will be needed to do so. Firestone referenced a Wednesday meeting, in Vilonia, where he plans to have the ear of President Barack Obama. Firestone asked the business owners to record their needs and get them to him as soon as possible.
"If someone has to bend the rules to help us — we know they can do it," Firestone added. "We are not asking for a handout — just enough to survive through this."
On that note, Firestone told the business owners to help him to help them.
"I need to know what you need," he said. "And, you are the only one that can tell me."
A couple of the business owners said they had already made applications to agencies for small business loans and emergency assistance. Some said they were turned down and had been told they do not qualify.
"Don’t be discouraged, if you are turned down," Firestone said. "Ask again," Firestone urged. "I want you guys to have help. We’re going to get through this together."
A few spoke out about immediate needs. Realtor Jackie Fowlkes of Vilonia Realty said one definite need is temporary office structures. Her family-owned and operated business was leveled after more than 30 years in operation.
Other discussion included the following:
• Firestone encouraged residents to give to local accounts where it will go directly to the cities for infrastructure or residents. Exxon, he said, has made a $250,000 donation to American Red Cross in the name of the cities but that will go into their general fund.
• City hall will be shut down from Tuesday through Thursday.
• Due to President Obama being in the city Wednesday, portions of Highway 64 will be shut down from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., Firestone told the businesses.
• The city curfew has been lifted.
Other speakers offered information and assistance as well:
• Officials with the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services in Conway addressed the businesses regarding unemployment benefits. Those eligible, he said, may be eligible to draw weekly compensation by making a phone call. He also talked about disaster unemployment insurance available to self-employed individuals such as farmers who have proof of earnings. The number for additional information is 501-730-9894.
• City engineer/building inspector Fred Fowlkes addressed permits, flood plains and building inspections and temporary housing. All fees for building permits, he said, will be waived. Also, buildings with less than 60 percent damage, he said, may obtain storm related building permits. Structures totally lost, Fowlkes said, fall under the normal building codes and guidelines.
Homeowners, Fowlkes said, will be allowed to live in campers and travel trailers while making repairs for up to six months. After the six months, he said, evaluations will be made. Also, he said, mobile homes will be allowed to be placed back in the districts where they were allowed before the tornado but not without meeting the standards and obtaining permits. His office is in the City Hall for those needing additional information.
--Cecil McMurtry of the Vilonia Water Department, which also sustained damage, said the business will waive transfer fees for tornado victims. "Our main goal is to get everyone up and running," he said. "We will waive as much as we can."
Also, he said there will be no late penalties or shut-offs this month in the city. He cautioned everyone to keep their eyes open for water and to call the department is seen. "The water is still costing us," he added. In addition, he said, the mobile water department is open beginning today.