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Bellows Falls aims to rise from the ashes

oona's restaurant
Oona’s Restaurant photo by Christian Avard

By Christian Avard | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted October 6, 2006

BELLOWS FALLS — It was an early Sunday morning when an historic Bellows Falls landmark went up in flames, leaving a town in shock.

On Oct. 1, and 20 Bellows Falls firefighters — along with those from several other communities — responded to a three-alarm fire right in the heart of downtown.

The 160-year old building aflame was home to three small businesses: Seasonal Soups and Salads, Simone’s Hair Salon, and Oona’s Restaurant, the hot spot for food and live music.

Firefighters said the fire was very difficult to extinguish due to the age of the building, and the estimated damage to the property was approximately $200,000. Investigators have ruled out arson as a cause.

SoVerNet, the Vermont-based telephone and Internet service company is just next door to Oona’s and also incurred severe damage.

As firefighters hosed the SoVerNet building, major flooding occurred in the basement and left more than 24,000 customers without access to e-mail. In addition, about 2,000 business websites were knocked out: The company was working last week to get these sites working again.

While the picture may not be rosy for all businesses involved in the fire, many residents are trying to cope not just with the loss of an important landmark, but with the impact it may have on revitalizing a struggling downtown.

Bellows Falls has struggled through hard economic times and the downtown area has seen small businesses come and go. Revitalization has been a work in progress and has been difficult to take root.

“I remember one time when author Archer Mayor said at a book reading, ‘Bellows Falls is like a phoenix. Always trying to rise from the ashes, but ... never ... able to fly.’ He said that and it really made me mad,” said Ann Dibernardo, a Bellows Falls Selectboard member.

Years ago, the building that houses Oona’s was seen as a cornerstone for efforts to invigorate the town.

“Oona Madden always had a vision of Bellows Falls. I remember when she was at the Ms. Bellows Falls Diner and mentioned to me this vision that she would like to own this restaurant, have entertainers and musicians and I really thought, ‘This would not fly,’” said Dibernardo. “So Oona eventually bought the old building and she was right. She was very successful and I think people really used Oona’s Restaurant as a rallying cry for the revitalization of Bellows Falls.”

Soon thereafter, downtown Bellows Falls began to blossom. After Oona’s was established, Robert McBride opened the Rockingham Arts & Music Project (RAMP) and Charlie Hunter started the Flying Under the Radar promotions and developed a popular music series, the Fred Eaglesmith Weekend. Later, the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance began and they supported some other ventures like the Bellows Falls Farmers’ Market.

Because of the renewed interest in the arts and culture in Bellows Falls, the town Selectboard passed a bond to restore the Bellows Falls Opera House.

McBride credits Madden for getting the ball rolling.

“When Oona was finally able to open, it was just a great moving forward of the community,” said McBride. “Another part of the puzzle put in place around creating community because so much of what develops community is food and culture and Oona’s created this place where people can come eat, hang out, talk, and meet. It was another revitalization effort for Bellows Falls.”

Since its opening, RAMP has served as a missionary for promoting arts in the area.

“Over the past 15 to 20 years, Bellows Falls has attempted as a community to regain a certain spirit and sense of energy, particularly the downtown area,” said Cynthia Reeves, owner of Spheris Gallery. “And to fast forward to this past year, now we would have art openings at the gallery and there would be a music event at the Windham Hotel and then people would walk over to Oona’s for dinner and drinks. It was just an inconceivably rich cultural evening for such a small, wonderful community.”

It’s still too early to know what will become of this storied landmark. The Bellows Falls Fire Department is still investigating the cause of the fire and just a month ago, Madden sold the restaurant to Gwen and James Powell of Newfane. Neither has indicated yet how soon Oona’s will reopen.

As to how the fire will affect the revitalization efforts of Bellows Falls, people are saying there’s no time to look back but only to move forward.

“This is the first time that something like this has happened in this town. We’re human beings and we kind of just pick up and keep moving and the attitude we have to just move forward with is that we brought Bellows Falls to a level, want to keep the energy going, to keep the sustainability going and we don’t want to view this as victims as much as how do we move forward,” McBride noted. “That’s what the community’s coming around to. And I think we’ll find that we have some momentum here. It’s time for us to grieve, but about this we also have to keep the momentum going.”

Others like Dibernardo remain optimistic about Bellows Falls’ future.

“It’s going to be ongoing. It’s always a metamorphosis. One thing I always say about Bellows Falls is, ‘Stay tuned!’ You’ll see what I mean,” said Dibernardo. “There’s a lot of other stuff brewing soon. We’ll surprise you.”