West End store owner gets back to business

Funds collected distributed to residents and business displaced by fire

BY KENNY WALTER
Staff Writer

 Right: Rashelle Ryant, owner of Shelly’s Jewels, poses with a showcase of jewelry at her newly reopened store on Second Avenue in Long Branch. Ryant reopened her store following the February fire (above) in the West End that destroyed 10 businesses and 14 apartments. Right: Rashelle Ryant, owner of Shelly’s Jewels, poses with a showcase of jewelry at her newly reopened store on Second Avenue in Long Branch. Ryant reopened her store following the February fire (above) in the West End that destroyed 10 businesses and 14 apartments. Rashelle Ryant lost 10 years of building a jewelry business in the Feb. 13 fire that ripped through the West End section of Long Branch, claiming 10 businesses and 14 apartments. “It was like a nightmare, a horrible nightmare,” Ryant, owner of Shelly’s Jewels, said in a July 11 interview.

“When my store burned down, I was pretty much hysterical. It was the most devastating event of my life,” she added. “I spent the last 10 years building this business that in three hours just disappeared on me.”

She is one of the first of her neighbors to reopen, with a new location a short distance away at 605 Second Ave.

 Kristen Dalton Kristen Dalton She estimates losses of at least $200,000 due to the five months her business was closed.

“After the fire, I was devastated and I had nothing to do,” Ryant said. “I needed to reopen as soon as possible and borrowed money from my kid.

“When the store on Second Avenue was becoming available, I told the landlord that I would take it, but I needed all new stuff.”

Following the fire, members of the West End business community organized various collection drives and fundraisers to benefit the businesses and residents displaced by the fire.

The ad hoc group collected clothing and household goods as well as money, which were funneled through a central bank account administered by Carol Feldman, manager of Central Jersey Bank’s West End Branch.

Feldman said in an interview last week that the collection stopped in April and the funds were distributed to residents and businesses to help them get back on their feet.

“Everybody’s been taken care of as much as we could,” she said. “I think pretty much everyone is settled and moved on to different apartments.

“First [the funds were] distributed to the residents and then the remaining amount was given to the businesses,” she added. “We did as much as we could.”

Ryant, who reopened Shelly’s Jewels two weeks ago, described how difficult it was to replace a 10-year-old business in a couple of months.

“I built up business slowly, and by the time I got to the end, I accumulated more stuff and more showcases and displays,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much those things were worth until I had to rebuy them all at once.”

Another issue has been replacing documents and receipts lost in the blaze.

“I don’t even have paperwork because it was all in the store,” Ryant said. “I don’t even know what the numbers look like; you have nothing to even go on.

“The insurance companies want receipts for everything, but who has receipts?” she added. “You don’t have anything. It’s like 10 years of your life is ripped away.”

According to the Monmouth County Prosecutor ’s Office, the fire began at the West End Dance Academy, located at 63 Brighton Ave., and the fire was not being investigated as suspicious.

Long Branch Fire Marshal Kevin Hayes said at the time that four buildings were damaged in the fire, with only 53 Brighton Ave. avoiding demolition.

Hayes said that 53 Brighton, the site of apartments and East Coast Coin and Jewelry, received smoke and water damage but would not be torn down.

He said that 55 Brighton Ave., the site of Shelly’s Jewelry, Universal Graphics and an apartment, was demolished.

Hayes also previously confirmed that 57-61 Brighton Ave., which included Sacred Circle New Age Center, and 63-67 Brighton Ave., containing a vacant storefront, the dance studio, the Wave Boutique and Crawford’s Espresso Café, were also demolished.

Long Branch Tax Assessor John Butow said the total assessment on the four buildings destroyed was more than $3.7 million.

When the blaze began, Ryant said she never thought it would carry all the way to her store.

“The fire started 10 stores away, and because it started so far away, it was not expected that the whole block would burn,” she said. “Being that it started 10 stores away, I’m watching the fire thinking it is never going to get to my store. And it got there.”

In the aftermath of the fire, there was some concern about how the fire would impact the remaining businesses in West End, but Feldman said she hasn’t noticed an impact.

“I think the businesses are going about it as usual, we are still busy,” she said.

“The area is still thriving. Hopefully the rest will come back once they get everything together.”

One of the crucial issues for the city moving forward is that the affected area is currently zoned for commercial uses, and the residential aspect does not conform to current zoning.

Under state law, when a nonconforming use is more than 50 percent destroyed by fire, that use is terminated.

Long Branch Mayor Adam Schneider said in a July 11 interview that the city would look at rezoning the area.

“Nobody has come forth with any building plans, as far as I know,” he said. “We are looking at the zoning for West End and are ultimately going to refer something over to the Planning Board for review.

“We are not going to change the zoning for one specific site, but the issue becomes that the building was a non-conforming use,” he added. “We don’t have a problem with the use, and we don’t have a problem with apartments over stores if they are done right.”

Schneider said that while the city does not have an issue with mixed-use buildings, there is a lack of parking in the area that creates problems. “You have a situation where any application there is going to create a parking crunch,” he said. “Do any of the restaurants or bars or businesses on Brighton Avenue have any parking?”

Schneider went on to say that there are two city-owned lots in the area but they tend to fill up quickly.

He also said that unless the city addresses parking in the zoning ordinance, it would create a problem for the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

“If you need a variance for five spaces, that’s one thing, but if you need a variance for 35 spaces, that’s a pretty major parking variance,” Schneider said. “How do you fit that into the zoning plan? It is not that easy.”

Following the fire, the building owners had what was left of the buildings demolished and the city installed sod on the site.

“It looks presentable because you never know what could have happened to the area,” Ryant said. “It could have looked like a muddy pit.

“We are hoping that the city moves forward and gets the plans out to the owners so that they can start rebuilding,” she added.

While the future of the other businesses remains on hold, Ryant is enjoying running her business at her new location.

“Everybody should come visit my new store, because it’s awesome,” she said. Contact Kenny Walter at kwalter@gmnews.com.