Flint’s water crisis vexes area bars and restaurants

Jonathan Oosting, Charles E. Ramirez, and Jim Lynch

Flint — Small business owners say they’re reeling from Flint’s contaminated water crisis, as residents fear eating out at restaurants or living in rental units, among a growing list of worries.

Charles Roussel pours bottled water for Kelli Kramer and Gary Rice at the 501 Bar & Grill, a service to give customers “peace of mind,” said manager Adam Lock.

The city’s lead-tainted water has been a public health issue for months. But now some owners of Flint’s smaller businesses, including in the food service and housing industries, say it is also creating economic problems.

The water crisis has drained the downtown Flint “Original” Coney Island of customers, said owner Atanas “Tommy” Zelevarovski, 63, adding he could be forced to close in a few weeks.

“People don’t want to eat,” said Zelevarovski, pointing to the three customers — all loyals — in his restaurant at 11:30 a.m. Monday. “The first question is: Do you got city water? Yes. Then you got filters? Yes. It doesn’t do any good.”

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Zelevarovski, a native of Macedonia who also operates a coney restaurant in Burton, opened his downtown location roughly 20 years ago. He employs 15 people at the restaurant, where he proudly points to a wall adorned with newspaper reviews praising his food.

“I’m ready to lock the doors. See the people here? They’re going to lose their job,” he said. “... I’m going to put up a big sign outside: Fix the water, I reopen.”

Zelevarovski has installed a water filter on his kitchen tap for cooks to use, and another filter is attached to the lines that feed his pop and coffee machines. He said he would like to put a well out back, but the city told him he could only use well water in the bathroom.

While the state is coordinating efforts to provide residents with free bottled water and filters, Zelevarovski said he has not received any help as he fights to keep his business alive.

“I tell you what, it’s going to be something like a ghost town,” he said. “Who wants to drink poison? You want to live in Chernobyl? No. It used to be auto city; now it’s poison city.”

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Adam Lock, general manager of the 501 Bar & Grill on South Saginaw Street in the city’s downtown, said bottled water isn’t enough to keep a steady stream of customers: “We’re serving bottled water to make our guests feel more comfortable. It’s for their peace of mind.”

Lock said only offering bottled water has added to the establishment’s costs. So has having its water tested, which the restaurant has done several times during the last few months.

“We never experienced any elevated lead level in it,” he said. “Every time the results came back, they said the water was fine.”

Still, the crisis has scared off some customers and business is noticeably off, Lock said.

Atanas Zelevarovski said he could be forced to close his “Original” Coney Island in a few weeks. “... I’m going to put up a big sign outside: Fix the water, I reopen.”

Tim Herman, CEO of the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce, which has nearly 1,200 business members and affiliates, maintains “most businesses in the area are holding their own for the time being.”

“To our knowledge, we haven’t lost a business, and no one has pulled out previous commitments because of the water crisis,” Herman said, but acknowledges: “Clearly, the water situation in Flint is affecting everyone.”

Mark Valacak, Genesee County’s top health official, said restaurants typically don’t have the same kinds of problems as residences. Because of more constant use, he said, water doesn’t sit in the lines as long, making it less likely to become contaminated.

As part of the public health emergency declared in October, county officials recommends all restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, food warehouses in Flint concerned about lead in water have their water tested.

Officials recommend food businesses install certified filters on faucets used for drinking or cooking and use bagged ice in the drinking water they serve.

Flint resident Jeff Cohen, a landlord who lives on Flint’s south side, told The News on Monday that his tenants are fleeing the city because of the water.

“It’s put me out of business,” he said. “My existing tenants have moved. They were having concerns about their children, mainly, and others have complained about skin symptoms like eczema.”

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Finding new tenants is no easy chore, he said. “They want to know first thing, is it Flint water? You cannot rent a house in Flint despite the fact there’s qualifying applicants.”

Cohen had a brief exchange with Gov. Rick Snyder on Monday before the governor’s remarks in Flint. Snyder swung back at his critics, saying Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton and filmmaker Michael Moore were among those “politicizing” the Flint water crisis for personal gain.