Business in flooded city survive with creativity

AP News
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Posted: Jun 27, 2011 6:34 PM
Business in flooded city survive with creativity

As if losing his house to the runaway Souris River weren't bad enough, Stuart Collom has another big worry: staying employed.

Minot's prosperity, driven largely by an oil production boom in western North Dakota, had kept the 51-year-old contractor busy laying concrete in basements, driveways and elsewhere until the massive flood swamped 4,000 homes and hundreds of businesses last week. Suddenly, the phone stopped ringing.

So he and his boss at Northfield Construction Co. have been surfing the Web for good deals on industrial-strength power washing machines, figuring plenty of homeowners and companies will need their services when the water recedes and a massive cleanup gets under way.

"It might be a way to make a living for a while. We'll see," said Collom, who's been sleeping on a couch in the office since his house flooded. "I think construction is coming to a grinding halt around here. A lot of the jobs we'd started are sitting under water."

Innovation is proving the key to survival for many businesses in the Minot area, as companies cope with transportation snarls, possible water contamination and other obstacles. From restaurants serving meals with paper plates and plastic utensils because they can't wash dishes to a grocery chain and tire wholesaler shifting inventory to new locations, they are doing what's necessary to keep their doors open. The owners of a golf course even altered the layout so people could keep playing.

"I don't want to lose my accounts to competitors. I have to stay in business," said Monique Jensen, manager of Tires Only, who scrambled to move about 20,000 tires to higher ground before her warehouse in a low-lying area was evacuated. Jensen sells to a network of retailers stretching from Minnesota to Montana and said any lengthy interruption of shipments would be costly.

The rain-swollen Souris peaked over the weekend at its highest level on record. By Monday, it was more than half a foot lower and moving steadily downward, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would be mid-July before they would consider the danger over. Corps officials said they were "guardedly optimistic" there'd be no further damage but warned rain could change the outlook.

No official damage estimate has been released, but the cost will be high. Some businesses will feel the pain for years, said David Flynn, director of the University of North Dakota's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, who studied how Grand Forks' catastrophic 1997 flood affected commerce. Some companies got through the initial disaster but never fully recovered and eventually failed, he said.

"What they suffered was the death of a thousand cuts because their key demographic and key customer base moved away," Flynn said. "They had to struggle and struggle and try to get clients and new customers in to take the place of the old in order to keep the business growing."

Minot may fare better than other flood-stricken cities because work in the oil industry and related businesses should keep numbers of people from moving away, he said. Still, companies that try to reopen after being closed for lengthy periods may have trouble luring people back.

"Do people get used to shopping somewhere else?" Flynn said. "Or do they move to a different part of town and there's another store that's closer than the one they shopped at in the past?"

The flood hasn't hurt Minot's hotels, which are packed with National Guard troops, government officials and other visitors, and big-box stores on the outskirts of town haven't missed a beat, selling bottled water and nonperishable foods by the cartload.

But staying afloat has required ingenuity from others _ particularly in the flood zone, with its hairdressers, insurance agencies, bars and other small retail and service outlets.

Collom and Ken Malsom, the building contractors, have a few out-of-town jobs lined up but soon will be out of work unless the power washing or other alternatives come through. "If the concrete slows down, we'll just have to do what we can and keep rolling," Malsom said.

Jensen figures the water is 3 to 4 feet deep in her warehouse, where about 25,000 tires were stored last week. She frantically lined up seven semi-trailers to move her inventory when it became apparent she'd have to evacuate, and she thinks all but about 5,000 were saved before the sirens blared Wednesday afternoon. Within a few days, she expects to have a system in place to resume filling orders.

Marketplace Foods has four grocery outlets in Minot, three on the south side of town. With the one on the north side awash in several feet of water, regional manager Ralph Towery has been scouting for a place to set up shop temporarily. He expects to lose money on the venture but hopes the company will reap good will from customers who won't have to travel jammed roads to the south side for supplies.

"People have lost their cars, lost everything, and we want to help meet their needs so they can get through this," Towery said.

Steve Connell, manager of Badlands Grill and Saloon, was determined not to close Saturday when authorities issued an order to boil drinking water because of contamination from the sewage treatment plant. Unable to serve tap water or run the restaurant's dishwasher, he and an assistant rushed to Walmart and bought bottled water, paper plates and plastic utensils.

"We've had a lot of people saying it feels like a picnic in here," Connell said. "That works for me."

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Associated Press writers Dave Kolpack in Fargo, N.D., and Doug Glass in Minneapolis contributed to this report.