Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bonners Ferry Community Reaches Out to Businesses in a Time of Need

At a time when things were at an economic low for the auto industry, an unexpected setback struck Riverside Auto in Bonners Ferry. On Aug. 3, the community watched as the 6,500-square-foot building which housed the dealership’s sales department and accounting offices went up in flames. But the fire did not discourage the dealership owners.

“The next morning we were out digging through our stuff and setting up our sales department,” said Wendy Hawks, daughter of owners Bill and Linda Hiatt. While officials were never able to pinpoint the exact cause of the fire, it is believed to have been caused by an electrical cord in one of the offices.

The dealership, which sells Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge as well as used vehicles, was closed for half a day as community members stopped by offering condolences, bringing flowers and volunteering to help in any way possible. An accountant who also had an office in the building, said she experienced the same outpouring from the community, according to Bill Hiatt Jr., president of Riverside Auto.

Area businesses donated trailers to temporarily house the sales and accounting departments and the Chamber of Commerce sent pizzas.

According to the Hiatt family, rebuilding will take approximately 120 days.

“We are trying to hire as many local people as we can for the subcontracting,” said Linda Hiatt, explaining that their definition of local encompasses the area where much of their customer base comes from – Boundary and Bonner counties.

The mother-daughter team of Linda Hiatt and Hawks have offices temporarily set up in an RV – one that Linda and Bill typically take down south for part of the winter. This year, that will have to wait until construction of the new building is complete.

It’s a challenge to do the everyday work and meet with contractors to organize the rebuilding, but the staff of 24 is keeping a positive attitude.

When they designed the new building, Hiatt Jr. said they kept the needs of their customer in mind. They will have covered space outside for the delivery of new vehicles as well as a nice waiting area.

“It’s centered around the needs of our customers,” he said.

When the town was still recovering from the fire at Riverside Auto, another blaze shook it up on Aug. 27. TrussTek, a business operated by Bill Byler and his four sons, also went up in flames. The 41,000-square-foot building was a total loss. But like Riverside Auto, TrussTek was up and running in no time.

“We actually had at least part of a manufacturing line that was not in the building,” said Byler. “We were able to continue to build at a reduced level immediately.”

When the construction industry was booming, Byler said the company employed approximately 80 people.

“Of the business we did have (before the fire), we are operating at at least 50 to 75 percent.”

Because of the slow economy, Byler said they considered not rebuilding, but because of the community they knew they had to.

“That was the positive part of this whole thing,” said Byler. “The community came in and supported, encouraged and blessed us.”

He said two days after the fire approximately 100 people worked at their business from morning to evening to help clean up.

“The community offered us anything we needed,” said Byler.

Those at Riverside Auto said many in the community were concerned they would not rebuild.

“Especially with everything going on in the car industry,” said Hiatt Jr. But the idea not to rebuild did not enter their minds.

The Hiatt family says they are grateful to the community and were overwhelmed by generosity. “We would show up at a restaurant to eat and the owners would buy our meals,” said Hiatt Jr.

The kindness extended far beyond the borders of Bonners Ferry, as owners of their biggest competitors called to offer their support. “We heard from everyone,” said Hiatt Jr. “Greg Taylor (owner of Taylor-Parker Motor Co. in Sandpoint) even drove up here during the fire, just to make sure we were all OK.”

“That is the nice thing about living in a small community,” adds Linda Hiatt. “There are a lot of good people.”

The opening of the new building will give the family a chance to show their appreciation.

“We’ll have a big grand opening and make it something special to give back to the community,” said Hiatt Jr.

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