Businesses near Pulse, the gay nightclub turned memorial site, struggle with the new normal 

click to enlarge bartlettimage-pulse_businessess-7567.jpg

Rob Bartlett

The image that stays with Tammi Heimburg of those first few days after June 12 is of the way the tiny yellow evidence markers looked scattered across Orange Avenue.

As law enforcement officials pieced together the facts of the massacre, they let Heimburg, a manager at Einstein Bros. Bagels, and her employees back into the shop to throw out old dough and any other food supplies that might rot while police inspected the crime scene outside. Through the restaurant's windows, Heimburg saw investigators walking up and down the street, finding bullet casings on the hot concrete.

As she walked through the bagel shop's parking lot that day, Heimburg saw a pair of big hoop earrings someone had left on the sidewalk, and at the end of the driveway, a bag full of torn clothes and personal belongings. The area behind Einstein was used as a "safe zone" by police officers that early Sunday morning, and about eight wounded victims made it there after escaping a mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse across the street. Later, Heimburg learned a victim had died in the lot.

click to enlarge Tammi Heimburg at Einstein Bros. Bagels on South Orange Avenue - ROB BARTLETT
  • Rob Bartlett
  • Tammi Heimburg at Einstein Bros. Bagels on South Orange Avenue

Three months after a gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 at Pulse, Einstein and other nearby businesses are struggling to adjust to the new normal that comes with being neighbors to the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. Since law enforcement officials reopened this section of Orange Avenue on June 21, hundreds of people and elected leaders have stopped to pay their respects at the fence surrounding the site of the massacre, which has created parking issues and loss of trade for some.

Visitors have left messages in white chalk on the flimsy black material covering the fence, plush teddy bears that fade with the constant summer heat and rain, and rainbow-colored roses. Among the artwork and pictures of victims, mourners light candles that slowly melt and harden into the concrete after they leave. Cars driving by slow to a stop as they pass the club, causing momentary traffic jams.

Naomi Rivera says she doesn't have the heart to ask mourners not to use her Dunkin' Donuts parking lot as they visit the memorial in front of Pulse.

It's not unusual to see people visit the site at all hours of the day, and Rivera says most of them park in the lot of the Dunkin' Donuts she manages, which is next to the club. Some of them come in to buy a coffee or water after their visit, while others don't buy anything, block the driveway or leave their cars behind other parked vehicles. Rivera says that, in the morning, she sometimes finds the lot trashed by nighttime visitors who leave empty beer bottles and McDonald's wrappers. Tourists from Brazil, England and New York now come by her store for donuts, though Rivera's regular customers have yet to return.

click to enlarge ROB BARTLETT
  • Rob Bartlett

Dunkin' Donuts, like other businesses in the area, was closed for at least nine days after the shooting while police processed the scene. Opening the store after being closed for so many days was emotional, Rivera says. She adds that after she came back, she saw the security-camera video of people running from the club to her store, banging on the door for someone to let them in. Her workers are still a little frightened about working at night, but customers have shown them support.

"I'm still getting my business because of the people who visit, but I'm hoping my regulars will come back," she says. "Yesterday I got one customer back. She said this was her first time coming back after the incident. She was scared to come back here."

Parking is one of the main concerns business owners in the SoDo district have after Pulse, says Sarah Elbadri, executive director of the Downtown South Main Street organization. Elbadri adds that some businesses, especially those that are locally owned, are still seeing fewer customers and thus are also dealing with financial losses.

Downtown South businesses will meet with city officials sometime this month to discuss what can be done to help. There's a list posted at downtownsouth.org of businesses on South Orange Avenue between Michigan Street and Miller Avenue, headlined "It's time to rally! Downtown South's local businesses need your support."

"We're working on a marketing and promotional strategy right now, trying to energize and rally local Orlandoans to help support these businesses at this time," Elbadri says. "Even though Pulse happened in June, July and August have been really slow months compared to previous years."

click to enlarge ROB BARTLETT
  • Rob Bartlett

In the days after the attack, Florida Gov. Rick Scott activated the state's small business emergency bridge loan program to provide emergency short-term, interest-free loans to the affected businesses near Pulse. The city of Orlando also encouraged business owners to contact their individual insurance companies for information about getting coverage for situations where business is interrupted. Both managers from Einstein Bros. Bagels and Dunkin' Donuts say their respective parent companies covered their losses for the time they were closed and paid employees during that time.

Cassandra Lafser, spokeswoman for Mayor Buddy Dyer, says the city is working with the club's owners to push back the fence closer to the building, which would allow more pedestrian movement and enable the city to remove the traffic-slowing safety barriers on the side of the road. The city is also encouraging people who visit to be respectful and courteous to the local businesses and residents while they grieve and pay their respects to the victims.

Lafser says the city has expressed its interest in buying the Pulse property to create a public memorial, though the club's owners have also expressed the desire to create a memorial of their own.

"Those discussions are not being rushed," she says. "It's not a short-term project. We want it to be a thoughtful process where we're engaging the community. We're not in any hurry, and the primary owners have a lot to deal with right now."

Heimburg says she sees people leaving their cars in the Einstein Bros. Bagels parking lot while they cross the street to visit the site. A lot of them have come in to use her store's bathroom and buy bagels, though; so much so that her sales have risen 15 percent compared to the same month last year. Still, it's hard to watch the way a few people treat the memorial, which many consider a sacred place.

"They'll take selfies or family portraits sometimes, all smiling," she says. "Like, it's not a family outing. That's not OK."

Down Orange Avenue at a RadioShack store, manager Anthony Cuevas says business is down for most people, but there's still enough to keep the doors open. RadioShack didn't have that many issues to deal with after being closed for nine days, and Cuevas says it's slowly getting back to its normal amount of business.

One Pulse-adjacent business caused a minor controversy after it started asking people who parked in its lot to pay $5 if they weren't customers. Earl Kurtz, owner of Pro Tint & Detailing, told the Orlando Sentinel the money went to covering the extra cost of a security guard he hired to patrol his lot, though he stopped after people accused him of trying to profit from a tragedy. Heimburg says Kurtz told her he had to refund some of his tint customers after they couldn't get their cars out of his parking lot.

Orlando Weekly tried to speak with Kurtz about the parking problems nearby businesses are having, but he did not want to comment on the situation.

"I don't want to talk about it anymore," he told us with a resigned sigh.

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