HUTCHINSON, MINN.-- Bob Gehlen had a whiskey and Coke in one hand, and a fistful of opinions on the state government shutdown in the other.
"I think we ought to shut down the government for a year," said the former Marine, standing at the Elks Lodge bar on bingo night. "It really hasn't had any impact."
There are lots of towns like Hutchinson across Minnesota, scarcely touched so far by the shutdown, now in its 12th day. Court-ordered spending has kept money flowing to enough bedrock services -- from schools to courts to health programs -- that many here hardly worry whether the shutdown will continue.
Misty Uecker and her mother still get crowds at their antique store, the Treasure Shed. Mona Wehde, trying to sell a Cadillac with a hole in the radiator one sticky summer afternoon, was surprised to hear the state had also had a partial shutdown in 2005. Chris Rueb was happy with his new job, and had trouble figuring out how often he needed something from the state. "Not that often, really, to tell you the truth," he said, pausing during a workout at a fitness center. "I work and go home, and that's about it."
The news that at least 60 families in McLeod County might lose their state-assisted child care because of the shutdown? Crowded off page 1 of the Hutchinson Leader by a story about longtime local doctor George "Buzzy" Smith, dead at age 91.
Instead, the shutdown seems to nibble at the edges in this town of 15,000 residents. Jenna Nagy, a teenage lifeguard at the municipal pool, hopes her July 28 state driving test won't be canceled. Carol Simondet had to change her family's camping plans when Glacial Lakes State Park closed (the backup plan meant camping in a city park in Olivia, where her sister lives). "We just got around it," Simondet said. "It's disappointing, of course."
There are larger problems in Hutchinson, a city old enough to have a stone plaque marking the spot where its first school was torched during an Indian uprising in 1862.
Road construction on School Road, which runs in front of City Council Member Chad Czmowski's home, has ground to a halt. "That one isn't going to get done" before summer ends, he noted.
Kevin Erickson, who has owned Erickson Auto since the 1980s, can still sell cars but the transactions are not being processed by the state.
Hutchinson Police Chief Daniel Hatten traveled to St. Paul last week to tell a court-appointed special master that he can't fill three vacancies on his 22-person police force because the state board that licenses officers is closed. "It forces me to pull officers from [an] investigation" unit so that enough police are patrolling the streets, he said.
A town already buffeted
Liz Painschab, owner of the Hairy Edge salon, says the shutdown is just one more bit of unsettling news in a population still waiting for an economic recovery that never seems to arrive. Hutchinson Technology, once the city's economic pride and joy, announced in March it was cutting more jobs in its third major downsizing at the plant since 2008.
In a salon with orchid-colored walls, wearing a black T-shirt promoting the rock band AC-DC, Painschab said that some customers are telling her, "Can you cut my hair extra short? I'm not going to come back [because] of all this going on." The state shutdown, she said, "really broke the camel's back" from a confidence standpoint, and seems to have particularly rattled the city's elderly.
Shortly after Painschab spoke, the midafternoon newscast on local KARP-FM radio carried news of the shutdown after the top story: a two-car traffic accident that sent one man to the hospital.
'We're pretty self-sufficient'
"I'm sure the Twin Cities is affected more heavily," Bruce Christianson, the owner of Carly's Shoes, said in assessing the shutdown's effect. "You probably wouldn't see a whole lot of impact [in Hutchinson] unless it goes on a long, long time."
Joyce Buerman, making her regular stop at the Treasure Shed, said she has heard complaints from anglers unable to get fishing licenses. But, she said, "Everything's busy. Out here, I think we're all pretty self-sufficient, and we all don't need all the [government] programs. And so, we're kind of plunking along and doing otherwise pretty fine."
In an ice arena on the other side of town, Minneapolis firefighter Bob Hanson watched as his daughter and a dozen other girls twirled through a series of figure-skating routines. As he tried to talk about the shutdown, a loudspeaker boomed Katy Perry's song "California Girls," making it difficult for Hanson to be heard. "Kids," he said. "They're in a different world."
Hanson said he's having trouble registering the motorcycle he just bought. "Let's see," he said, pausing for several seconds. "How else has it been affecting me?"
Even when the shutdown is felt in town, it often comes with an asterisk. Corrine Lund, who is unemployed, said she has not been able to get onto the state workforce website since the shutdown. But, Lund said, she's been out of work 11 months -- long before the July 1 shutdown started. "I just don't have a lot of job skills," she said.
As they sat alongside Hutchinson's municipal pool on a hot Friday afternoon, Becky Suko and Kathy Lipke thought about the shutdown. The women swapped stories about their July 4th weekend trips. "We witnessed the rest areas getting barricaded off," said Lipke. "We didn't have a place to pull off. We have a young puppy."
Back at the Elks Lodge, Gehlen held court on how unnecessary state government was in his life, while Beth Bartholomew tried to hold her tongue. Finally, Bartholomew, who helps adults in town with developmental disabilities, said her program had been deemed critical and kept open.
Gehlen, unmoved, continued loudly. "Put the vise grip on the hose, and shut it down," he said. "I don't count on the government."
"Well," said Bartholomew, trying to remain diplomatic, "I'm happy we're not shut down."
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673