Officials from the Orange Water and Sewer Authority and Orange County held a private meeting with the business community on Tuesday to discuss the water emergency that closed businesses in Chapel Hill and Carrboro for more than 24 hours.
The meeting was organized by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, which barred members of the media from the event at the Hampton Inn in Carrboro.
Chamber President and CEO Aaron Nelson said roughly 90 people came to speak with OWASA executive director Ed Kerwin, Orange County Health Department Director Colleen Bridger and Orange County Emergency Services Director Dinah Jeffries.
On Thursday night, OWASA will present a preliminary report during a meeting that begins at 6 p.m. in the Council Chamber at Chapel Hill Town Hall, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Community members may comment at the meeting or send comments in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Andrea Orbich, Clerk to the Board, 400 Jones Ferry Road, Carrboro, NC 27510.
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Nelson said it was good for the business community to get detailed information and he was “not sensing that anybody who had heard the information would think the water ban didn’t need to be issued.”
The discussion centered on how to improve communication, with ideas such as a separate communication channel for area businesses being brought up.
Another issue brought up was whether OWASA could cover any of the damages caused by the water-related closures. Kerwin said it was too early to know.
“Until we complete our investigation, particularly in regard to the fluoride overfeed and water main break, only then would we be able to answer that,” he said.
Robert Epting, an attorney at the Chapel Hill law firm Epting and Hackney and legal counsel for OWASA who was present at the meeting, did not immediately return a request for comment.
Nelson said the chamber is helping companies file insurance claims, although it doesn’t look like many plans will cover the event.
“This was a multi-million dollar hit on the business community,” Nelson said. One hotel told him it estimated losses at $150,000, and another hotel said it lost $60,000.
Scott Maitland, owner of TOPO Distillery and Top of the Hill restaurant in Chapel Hill, attended Tuesday’s meeting. He said there were concerns, especially about how information was updated. As a business owner, he would have liked more progress reports on the repairs and the timeline for completing them, he said.
“The upshot is this was a freak occurrence, and I think that in general, things were handled pretty well, and when you get all the facts, you realize why decisions were made the way they were,” Maitland said. “I think particularly we realized, in the future, different constituencies need different communications. A household can just turn the taps on and be back in action. A business can’t. A business has to think about scheduling and that kind of stuff.”
While the water ban didn’t affect production at the distillery, TOPO did have to suspend tours of the plant at 505 W. Franklin St., and business at the downtown restaurant was “an existential disaster,” he said, estimating the two-day losses at $80,000.
Jay Patel, the general manager of The Franklin Hotel, was also at the meeting and said that insurance will cover the hotel’s losses. He described the meeting as positive and that it centered around how to improve communication.
“It was really just more of a chance to talk with folks [about what happened],” he said.
Bret Oliverio, the owner of Sup Dogs, a popular restaurant with UNC students on Franklin Street, said the weekend’s closures cost the restaurant tens of thousands of dollars.
Oliverio, who was not at this morning’s meeting, agreed that the weekend’s closures were tough, especially since the university asked students to leave town. He added that his insurance plan would not cover the losses because it requires the restaurant to be closed more than 36 hours.
“It was bad timing that there was a big basketball game,” he said. “All things considered, I thought communication was fine. But for me, it was important to know if the ban was called because of a shortage or because the water would make people ill. I think people were confused about that, and we need to know 100 percent what it is.”
Staff writer Tammy Grubb contributed to this story