Optimism Abounds One Year After Boardwalk Fire

OCEAN CITY – There are many things that Bill Gibbs lost in the fire one year ago, but his sense of optimism was not one of them.

The Dough Roller Restaurants owner Bill Gibbs says he tries not to look back on the day in which a fire destroyed his Boardwalk business. Instead, he claims he’s been pushing forward ever since.

One day after a nine-alarm fire destroyed the Dough Roller in downtown Ocean City last year, Gibbs was in the offices of architectural firm Becker Morgan with blueprints for the rebuilding process.

“You have to make a good thing out of a bad thing,” said Gibbs. “You have to move on because it isn’t there anymore, and as much as we miss the old building, we hope this new one is going to be a good thing.”

The new Dough Roller, resurrected from the ashes of the previous building that dated back to the 1900s, is set to open in a short few weeks, pending permit approval, potentially re-opening almost a year to the day from a massive blaze that saw over 100 firefighters from 22 fire companies from three counties and over 53 fire trucks and engines battling the flames, which ignited just past noon on March 30, 2008, and spread to two neighboring properties.

“I’ve always said that the old building was a piece of the beach and a piece of Ocean City,” said Gibbs. “I remember as a kid, when this building was an arcade, before I made it a pizza place, I remember the third skeeball game in, you could jerk it a few times and get the balls for free without putting the penny in there, so I have a lot of history in this building as do a lot of other families in this town.”

Gibbs cites the work of Gillis Gilkerson Inc, the town of Ocean City, and a few “local good Samaritans” for helping with the efforts to bring back the Boardwalk mainstay from the shell of what was left behind in the blaze.

“You have to look forward, there’s a tremendous amount of people that live and work out of this building, and they have families and mortgages that they need to take care of, so if we didn’t push forward from day one, we wouldn’t be here now,” said Gibbs.

The new Dough Roller has a more open layout, according to Gibbs, and though many of the nostalgic items and old vintage items like the brass lighting fixtures and the antique ceiling are gone, Gibbs hopes that some new amenities will be effective as well as aesthetically pleasing.

“The whole atmosphere is drastically better,” said Gibbs. “There’s 1,500 more square feet from what we have before and it’s better usage of the total 9,500 square feet.”

The kitchen, which will continue to be viewable from the Boardwalk, has been expanded to increase efficiency, and seating has been consolidated to create a better atmosphere. Additionally, eighty tons of air conditioning have been installed, which Gibbs says is the thing he’s most excited about to offer his summertime customers.

“We lost a lot of antiques and nostalgia that are just irreplaceable,” said Gibbs. “I will miss the old carousel horse the most, and I will miss the neon ninja turtle that was in the old ceiling, but this is nice and new and that’s what people want: air conditioning, efficiency and comfort.”

Gibbs said he lost in excess of $1.5 million throughout the entire year-long process, but said that times have been tough in Ocean City for the last three years, and those factors concern him more than the rebuilding process ever did.

“I’ve lost over a $100,000 a winter for the last three years trying to keep my people working,” he said. “Before that, we didn’t lose money. We broke even in the winter, but someone needs to do something to start drawing people here in the wintertime, because if it doesn’t get any better, we might have to start looking at some options off the island to keep our people working.”

Gibbs said the City Council’s recent passage of the expansion to the Roland E. Powell Convention Center is a sign that the town is headed in the right direction, but he says he’s cautiously optimistic about the upcoming summer season.

“What’s happening in the global market and the local economy is so far out of our control that I can’t be anything but cautious,” said Gibbs. “I’ve always been an optimist but it hasn’t been that way for the last few years, so yes, I’m cautious, and a bit scared.”

In the months that followed the fire, 48-year-old Gregory W. Wallace Kern, who was a former employee at the Dough Roller, was indicted on two counts of 1st degree arson, two counts of 2nd degree arson, and one count of reckless endangerment, only later to take an Alford Plea (which is acknowledging the prosecution could convict if it went to trial, but never officially admitting guilt) and was charged with the lesser count of reckless endangerment and time already served in prison (118 days).

Gibbs said that he never personally met Kern, as he was a “sympathy hire” as Kern was “very much in need of a job at the time, and was virtually homeless,” when Gibbs’ longtime general manager, Keith Melvin, hired him to work a few hours a day on the weekends.

“I wouldn’t know him if he walked in the door right now,” said Gibbs. “I didn’t participate in the trial, because since day one, my main focus has been to rebuild and to have my people make the money they were making before so that they can support their families.”

It should be noted that Gibbs has more than 700 employees in his little local family run empire. His wife runs the Breakers Hotel, and his three children, Gary, Jeff, and Kevin run Castaway’s, the 3rd street Dough Roller, and the south Boardwalk Dough Roller, respectively.

For a guy that has had as tough of a year as anyone, Gibbs certainly doesn’t seem to show that rebuilding from a fire, losing more than a million dollars and operating a business in the middle of the worst economic conditions in 40 years is starting to get to him.

“If anything good can come of all of this, I hope the market straightens itself out and the rental and housing prices go back to where they are affordable for the hardworking Pennsylvanians and Marylanders can start coming back here again,” said Gibbs. “They’ve been telling me for years that it’s too expensive to come here, and we should’ve listened to them. Ocean City is a blue-collar resort town.”