Madelia Seeks Help Recovering From Downtown Fire

A small southern Minnesota community that lost eight downtown businesses to an early-morning Feb. 3 fire is poised to rebuilt, but it seeks some state help.

For many communities, “it would be enough to bring the town to its knees, but not ours,” Brent Christenson said of Madelia, a 2,300-person community just southwest of Mankato. “We will rise from the ashes, but we need your help.”

Christenson, a school board member and former mayor, joined others in asking the state Senate Taxes Committee Thursday to provide tax breaks and increased state aid so the city can recover from losing eight businesses in four buildings.

Madelia seeks:

— A property tax exemption for the rebuilt buildings though 2031.

— Elimination of sales taxes on materials used in construction of the new buildings.

— Increased Local Government Aid state aid to the city by $80,000 over the next 15 years.

The committee, which did not take action Thursday, also is considering how to help fund $235,000 of remaining debris removal costs. Insurance already paid $265,000.

In separate legislation, lawmakers are looking into borrowing money to help the city rebuild public infrastructure.

Unlike many small towns, no downtown Madelia buildings were vacant before the fire. Since the fire, all eight businesses have found temporary homes until new buildings are constructed.

However, other businesses have been affected, Christenson said. His family’s theater, which charges $5 a seat, suffered its worst five weeks after the fire, blamed in part on the destruction of a Mexican restaurant that movie-goers frequented before or after movies.

Another business closed last week, he added, because there is not enough traffic in town since the fire to keep it open.

Burned-out businesses plan to move back downtown.

“These people made an investment in downtown,” consultant Ed Tschida of Mankato said.

The property tax breaks are needed, he said, because taxes on the old buildings were $10,000, but “they will bump up to about $80,000” once they are rebuilt.

“We want to find a way to protect a small town,” Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said. “If we do nothing, we could hurt the town.”

Gazelka said many building owners who receive insurance checks for the destruction would “take the money and go,” especially with higher taxes that would “become unaffordable.”

The Madelia businesses do not want to leave, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said. “There is a tremendous desire to remain in the community.”

In the hours after the early-morning fire, which started during a blizzard, the community began using the phrase: “Madelia strong.”

No committee members said they oppose helping Madelia, but they did wonder how to best do that.

For instance, Sen. Ann Rest, D-New Hope, said she prefers giving more general state aid to Madelia for debris clean-up, instead of a state grant as Rosen proposed.

“We are going to have continued conversations about this,” Committee Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said.

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Fire video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1nhi34hC3s