By ANDREA VARGO
A strategy meeting held by the Howard Lake Business Association, Tuesday addressed the problems facing business persons during the State Highway 12 construction projects.
These projects will begin to affect Howard Lake this year, but will culminate in 2000, when the highway will be torn up through town.
Gerry Smith, business association president, asked people to focus on questions that would help the business community maintain the sales base for its businesses.
Smith said some of the goals for the session were how to build loyalty with customers and keep people informed of the situation.
Tammy Matthees, manager of the 12-Hi Superette in Montrose, told the assembly how her business was the most isolated by the construction
She also owns the laundromat next door to the convience store and said at one time the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) wanted to service the whole area for water through a three- quarter inch garden hose.
Matthees kept a daily journal, complete with pictures, through the whole process.
"We had meetings at noon on Mondays," she said, "but things had already changed by 1 p.m."
"My advice is to go to those meetings with a tape recorder or video camera," she said.
With the detour and highway barricades in place, she said they knew their commuter people were gone and did what they could to promote the local business.
They invested in a bulk mailing license in order to reach everyone in the area.
"We did punch cards for milk and gasoline. You know, buy so many and get one free," she said.
The milk cards worked very well, but people couldn't get to us with cars, so the gas cards weren't as successful.
"We concentrated our major efforts on the local people," Matthees said.
"For three weeks we had to cart groceries and other things across a lawn with a garden tractor and trailer," she said.
Rain was a big problem, and the guys who drove the trucks and machinery were a big help, Matthees said.
They pulled stuck cars out of the mud and helped when they could, she said.
"My advice is not to sign any papers until everything has been up and running and working for at least three weeks," said Matthees.
Mike Marketon, owner of Marketon's Body Shop, said, "They told us there would be access to business at all times. But they didn't say with what!"
There was no emergency vehicle service, and Marketon, also the fire chief for Montrose, complained to MnDOT every day, he said.
"We had to drive the fire truck down the railroad tracks to get to the trailer court," said Marketon.
Bill Wickesberg, mayor of Montrose, said "You've got to take this thing seriously."
"If we knew then what we know now, we would have been working a year ahead," he said.
"Granted we had a lot of rain, but when the road is dug out, it is a mess," said Wickesberg.
"It gets into your soul. People get edgy. It goes on and on," he said.
Wickesberg told the crowd, "There were six to eight weeks where I don't even remember what happened," he said
It was every day design mistakes; grading over here, and gravel over there, said mayor.
Another ramification of this kind of project is the use of the back roads. All that extra traffic really tears them up, he said.
"When everyone lives in a world of convenience, if they have to go out of their way to get something, they will go someplace else."
Some people even drove their cars down the railroad tracks, said Wickesberg.
There is a program for townships to get help with dust control and grading, because local people take the shortest distance, said Matthees.
Wickesberg told the gathering that it is important to take a positive attitude, but be aggressive.
"It doesn't pay to start a war. Just keep pushing for what you need" he said.
At the time the highway was torn up, Wickesberg said, "We replaced all the utilities that would be under the highway and did a lot of advance leg-work for that."
He advised the utility planning be done well in advance of the project.
"We really pushed hard for a stop light. When MnDOT does its traffic studies, ask what time it does them.
"We are a bedroom community, and all our traffic is gone by 8 a.m. They told us they count the traffic from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
"That didn't do us any good," said Wickesberg.
He told the gathering they need community support. Common sense and communication are very important, he said.
Montrose has two cross streets and Howard Lake has at least eight or 10 cross streets. Two of those are major intersections on Wright Co. Rd. 6.
The lack of cross streets hurt the mobility of the people in Montrose, said Wickesberg.
Also, he said there were not enough banners and signs for the businesses from MnDOT.
"We spent a lot of time on the phone," said Marketon, "explaining how to get to the businesses, if people even could."
The dust was another problem, said Matthees.
"I could write my name in the dust on the freezer doors at the back of my store every day," she said.
In answer to a question about county support, Wickesberg said that Dick Mattson, county commissioner was very supportive and helped get him in front of the right people, when Montrose needed something.
Meeker County Commissioner Amy Wilde said the Dassel project was a mess.
"I won't kid you, it was a bear-cat at times. It is absolutely worth it, now that it is done, she said.
Two hundred volunteers are signed up to plant trees and bushes from a beautification grant received by Dassel from MnDOT.
The city received about $15,000-$20,000 for trees and shrubs.
NSP cooperated by putting all the utility poles on one side of the street to make all the banners and decorations look more uniform, said Wilde.
Many businesses spruced up their store fronts and got new signs, she said.
"Last spring, I wouldn't have been so positive," said Wilde.
The Dassel Chamber of Commerce saw the whole thing coming, she said, and started to put funds away for advertising and business promotion.
MnDOT put up a sign pointing the direction to Dassel businesses, but the best idea was the individual business signs.
Two businesses changed hands during the construction and the restaurant (Hojies Grill and Smokehouse) did very well, said Wilde.
In fact, all the restaurants did well, as did the motel and gas stations.
"We had a captive audience, so to speak. The construction workers spent money in town, and the residents found it too much trouble to go out of town to shop, so they spent more money locally," said Wilde.
The grocery store did better than before and even added on when the road construction was finished, she said.
"This wasn't something people expected," said Wilde.
The nursery moved and expanded and is doing well, she said.
The people who did promotions and made arrangements with their bankers ahead of time did fine, Wilde said.
"We made maps of the area with the detour routes and a business map of the city," she said.
They went over well and helped with high school graduation parties.
MnDOT tried to keep at least two street crossings open at all times, and for the most part they did, she said.
Wilde said the secret to survival is planning and working together.
Matthees felt constant vigilance over the work was important, and both agreed promotion was essential.
Molly Van Oss from the Old Town Gallery stated, "You have to be careful not to get caught up in a difference of opinions. Don't panic the first time two people disagree."
Smith told the group that the common denominator is working together.
"We need to make our own plans, and people need to come forward to help. It is all done together," he said.