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Florida business owner seeks refuge from Irma in Fairmont


Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT, W.Va. — With Hurricane Irma predicted to make land in the United States by Sunday, John Costelac needed a place to escape the disaster and keep his business going as the storm moved toward his home of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

He turned to West Virginia to be his area of refuge for himself and his business.

“I told the company we can’t let this thing beat us; we have to keep going and keep the lights on,” Costelac said.

Andrea Fleming prepares the Excelerator office for Costelac and Direct Connect Auto Transport.
(Times West Virginian photo by Tammy Shriver)

Costelac is the CEO of Direct Connect Auto Transport, a third-party logistics provider which transports vehicles around the country for its clients. Costelac knows his customers need the company’s service around the clock, so he made a plan to temporarily spread his company around to keep working through the storm.

He is attempting to make his way to the Excelerator office on Fairmont Avenue Friday to keep his part of the business moving.

“We saw an opportunity to aid someone. There are so many people who need help in these disasters, so we’re trying to help those people in need,” Andrea Fleming, executive director for Fairmont Community Development Partnership, which owns the Excelerator office, said.

Excelerator is a business incubator on Fairmont Avenue which offers a discount rental rate intended to help new and startup businesses get off the ground.

All Costelac said he needed was a Wi-Fi connection, a computer and a phone, and he wanted an office where he could work for a short-term period of only a few weeks during the storm.

With an opening at the office, Fleming made him the offer.

“He can stay as little or as long as he wants; we’re open to helping out with refugees from the hurricane,” she said.

Being familiar with the area because his mother lives in Fairmont, he decided to call the Marion County Chamber of Commerce to get him a short-term office with access to a phone and Wi-Fi. They connected him with Fleming and Excelerator.

“He called asking for office space saying he was in Florida, and there is a Marion County in Florida so I thought he had the wrong one,” Kathy DeNardi, administrative assistant for the Marion County Chamber of Commerce, said.

“We had a little laugh about that, but he was very thankful we were able to help.”

The chamber referred him to Excelerator in an attempt to get him the best opportunity.

“He wanted to get in then get out and set up shop quickly to keep his business going immediately,” Tina Shaw, president of Marion County Chamber of Commerce, said. “It’s very uncommon for someone to only rent for a few weeks, but it was the perfect opportunity for the Fairmont Community Development Partnership.”

Besides having family ties to Fairmont, Costelac cited his experience with the community as a perk to making it a temporary hub for business.

“I’ve been around Fairmont. I trust Fairmont, and all these years later it’s where I turn to keep the wheels of the business turning,” Costelac said. “Everybody there is so supportive.”

Right now, his biggest worry is the airport closing before he makes it on his flight out of Florida. Shaw’s son, Gary Shaw, has been a practicing attorney in Miami for the past 18 months, said he made it on a flight to Washington, D.C., by sheer luck.

“When I left the hysteria hadn’t set in yet, but everything was closing up shop and everyone was in that mindset. That’s what scares me the most, the hysteria before and after the storm, so I didn’t want to be there for that,” Gary said.

Costelac had been through hurricanes before. He was 22 and living in Orlando when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, and he still remembers wading through the town in the aftermath seeing the scars left by the storm.

“It was like being on the moon. It took out houses and roofs, and it had cars and even houses flipped over. I remember the National Guard helicopters flying everywhere; it was something else,” he remembered.

While he is hoping to wait out the storm in Fairmont, the thought of the ensuing damage in Florida reminds him of the sights from Andrew, but he is hoping to return as soon as he believes the coast is clear.

“I have to say I’ve never been seriously worried about a hurricane since Andrew. That’s like the gold standard for hurricanes, but people are running for their lives right now,” Costelac said. “Another thing that worries me is that resources have been stretched thin in Houston, so we know we have to prepare for catastrophe.”

Email Eddie Trizzino at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @eddietimeswv.

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