They are emerging from the ashes, one by one, along Madelia’s Main Street.
Last month, it was the Culligan Water shop, with its eight employees. A week ago, the American Family Insurance office held a ribbon cutting, celebrating new life after a fire raged through town a year ago, burning down eight businesses.
Jim Pettersen clearly remembers the phone call he got last February at 3 a.m.
“Get your butt down here, Main Street is on fire!” the caller said.
Pettersen did as told, only to find his Culligan store burning to the ground and his livelihood jeopardized. It has been a challenging year for the Culligan employees, but they had good insurance and rebuilt quickly, becoming the first business to open in its original location.
Pettersen wondered at times whether it was worth it to rebuild in the same location because of the expense, but he was challenged by a friend, Chuck Gunderson, who owned some of the razed buildings.
Gunderson told him that if he didn’t rebuild, people would “drive downtown and see this big hole” where Pettersen’s business once stood.
“I’m glad he said that,” Pettersen said. “All of us grew up in town, all of us graduated from high school here. We’d never think of leaving the community. We don’t have people who don’t stay here long.”
Pettersen said insurance covered most of the expenses, and his office was able to rent space at the local lumberyard to stay open. The day of the fire, in fact, workers installed a water tank for a customer. “We didn’t skip a beat,” he said.
Tom Osborne, president of Madelia Strong, the town’s nonprofit vehicle for rebirth, said Madelia moved quickly to make sure workers displaced by the fire got help.
“When this happened, we did everything we could to get people working,” Osborne said. “We didn’t want anybody to leave because if they leave they don’t come back.”
Krystal Hernandez, owner of the La Plaza Fiesta restaurant, set up a temporary kitchen at the golf course. Hair stylists who worked for Tressa Veona Salon were given spaces at another salon so they could keep their clients.
“Some people were able to get unemployment,” Osborne said. “Others were independent contractors. We tried to help them out.”
Several funds were set up to help victims. Donations came in from across the state and neighboring towns and businesses, totaling about $500,000.
“That’s kind of amazing,” said Osborne. “But we still have a ways to go. People are getting by and getting their families fed.”
Pettersen said taxes have risen dramatically because the value of his new building is much higher. The city cut his tax rates to what they were before, but the state assessment could cost him $10,000 more this year, he said.
“It makes no sense,” Pettersen said. “The city can abate it, but the state can’t. We’re hoping to get some help.”
The Legislature voted overwhelmingly last year to help out Madelia, but the money never came. Both houses passed a bill that would give $31,000 a year to the city and $15,000 a year to Watonwan County for 20 years to help make up for taxable property losses.
But in the chaotic close to the session, Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the tax bill that would have funded the help after finding a potentially costly drafting error. Madelia was one of the losers.
“These businesses dove in to build because they said help was on the way,” Osborne said, but they got caught up “in political football.”
“We just hope the Legislature comes through [this session] like they said they would,” Osborne said.
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, hopes internal squabbles this session won’t stop Madelia from getting the money that was promised.
“The tax bill, if it comes up, should not be a problem,” Cornish said. “Also, the 100 grand or so for Madelia for infrastructure should come also. I think we’ll be OK. We have a history of helping out in disasters.”
Given the rift between urban and rural factions last year, you would hope legislators make Madelia a priority this session. The business owners and residents are literally banking on it.
“Madelia is unusual in that before the fire there was a business in every store front,” Osborne said. “There are a lot of loyal people that hope it stays that way. [Business owners] sacrificed a lot to keep the community together.”
Nothing formal is planned to mark the anniversary of the fire, but town leaders hope enough of the burned businesses will be back by July, when the town will hold, ironically, a blues festival.
“We’ve got a lot to celebrate,” Osborne said.