MADELIA, MINN. – Five months after a fire swept away a section of this farm town’s Main Street, signs of recovery are everywhere.
Workers erected steel girders at the fire site last week, making a skeletal outline of replacement buildings expected to rise by winter. Posters for the annual summer festival — Park Days — say it’s on schedule for this coming weekend.
And the kitchen staff at the city’s popular Mexican restaurant — one of the eight businesses ruined by the Feb. 3 fire — dished up tortilla soup with fresh avocado and other specialties this past weekend at a temporary location at the city golf course clubhouse.
Slowly, Madelia is getting back to normal.
“There aren’t even words to thank everyone,” said Krystal Hernandez, owner of the La Plaza Fiesta restaurant.
She and her husband, Daniel, opened on June 23, deciding at 4:45 p.m. that day they were finally ready to fire up their temporary kitchen. They put an announcement on Facebook, and in a sign of just how ready the city’s 2,219 residents were for the restaurant’s return, all 95 seats were filled by 5:15 p.m.
No cause for the fire could be determined, according to a state fire marshal’s investigation released Friday. The fire appeared to start at Hope and Faith Floral & Gifts, according to a witness. A furnace at the shop could not be ruled out as the cause, said deputy fire marshal Steve Kellen in a report, nor could gas pipes and electrical lines.
Backhoes that knocked down some of the buildings during the firefight chewed up the evidence, Kellen wrote, making it impossible for him to determine the fire’s cause.
No aid from state
The town is still fighting for property tax relief and other aid from the state. When the Legislature adjourned in May and the tax bill expired in a pocket veto, measures meant to help Madelia died.
“We’re very disappointed about the legislation,” said Joanne McCabe, who ran the American Family Insurance business on Madelia’s Main Street with her husband for decades before turning it over to their son, Brian.
Her new building will be more valuable than the one it’s replacing, so its property taxes will be higher. A onetime $1.2 million increase in local government aid had been expected to help lower property tax bills for fire victims.
McCabe, along with the other building owners, plan to meet Tuesday to craft their own strategy for seeking property tax abatements from the city, county and local school district.
The expired tax bill included a sales tax exemption on construction materials used for Madelia’s rebuilding, and the failed bonding bill included $98,000 to help the city with infrastructure costs, according to Tom Osborne, a local accountant who started the nonprofit fundraising group Madelia Strong in the days after the fire.
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said she’s “befuddled” by what’s happened to Madelia’s aid. She blamed Gov. Mark Dayton for the failure to get relief to Madelia. Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the governor should call a special session to approve the tax bill.
A spokesman for Dayton, who was traveling in Croatia last week, said that the governor supports both a $1.2 million grant and a $140,000 sales tax exemption on construction materials, but that he couldn’t sign the tax bill because it had a $101 million error. Dayton has since asked Daudt to agree to terms for a special session, said spokesman Matt Swenson.
Donations have helped
The fire left Madelia with a cleanup cost of $100,000 to $150,000 more than insurance covered, said Osborne. The uninsured loss was more than $1 million.
Donations have helped: About $200,000 in donated funds is being handled by Madelia Strong, its seven-member board doling out the money to fire victims as needed.
And the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation raised $245,960 and distributed all but $6,640 to the eight businesses and four hair stylists put out of work by the fire. About $35,000 was also granted to the Region Nine Development Commission, a nonprofit group that promotes development in the region, including in Watonwan County.
The Blandin Foundation gave about $60,000 to the foundation, about half of which was passed along to Region Nine to help Madelia pay for a comprehensive plan.
The donations have helped some businesses get up and running, but things won’t be the same for Kay’s Upholstery, a sewing shop run by Kay Gunderson for 40 years on Main Street. Her sister ran EZ Medical Wraps out of the same location. Gunderson lost her quilting machine in the fire, and buying a new one at this stage in her life doesn’t make sense, she said. The machines cost as much as a new car, and Gunderson said she would never be able to pay it off.
It was her son, Matt, who heard an explosion the night of the fire and called 911. He had an apartment above one of the Main Street businesses lost in the fire.
The surrounding communities have been “phenomenal” with support, she said, and it’s been an advantage of small-town life that people have looked out for one another.
Gunderson relocated two blocks north of Main Street and had her grand opening on April 1.
Other businesses have found temporary quarters or moved into new locations.
The new Main Street should see some grand openings by November, according to the area Chamber of Commerce.
The restaurant probably won’t open until next spring, because there’s more work to follow health codes and have the building inspected before opening.
Krystal Hernandez was about to open a Mexican grocery store two doors down from her restaurant when the fire destroyed the old La Plaza Fiesta. Now the plans call for the restaurant and grocery to be together in one spot.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Hernandez, saying that she never would have wished for the fire but that because it happened, she gets to design the new restaurant and grocery store from the ground up. “It’s going to be better than it would have been before,” she said.