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Cover_Fire-3-032.gifFirefighters battling the fire that engulfed numerous main street businesses and residences in downtown Melrose.

When a fire tore through Melrose, the community discovered just how strong it really is.

By Nick Coleman | Fire images courtesy of Carl Schultzetenberg

Smoke was billowing over downtown Melrose last September as firefighters worked to put out a blaze that had engulfed the 400 Block of East Main Street. As the first responders worked, a second wave of citizens, civic groups and charity workers mobilized to save something more important than bricks and mortar: They pulled together to preserve the close sense of shared community and common interest of a small town suddenly struck by disaster.

“The whole town was there. We were all wondering, ‘What’s going to happen here? This is devastating,’” said Cara Norling, president of the Melrose Area Women of Today, one of the major community groups serving this small town of 3,600 residents. On the afternoon of Sept. 8, Norling watched from across the street as firefighters worked to rescue more than 40 tenants from several upper-floor apartments. Many of them were night-shift workers at the local turkey-processing plant and were still in bed before reporting to their jobs.

The sight of one woman, still in her nightgown, inspired the group’s members to fly into action. “We could see they were left with nothing but the clothes on their back,” said Candy Freeman, a Women of Today member who organized clothing and food drives for the displaced residents. “So we turned around, ran home and started grabbing spare clothes and food. One lady came in with a trailer with 40 boxes she had been planning to sell at a garage sale. Instead, she just donated everything: clothing, supplies, furniture.”

The Central Minnesota Credit Union soon became a makeshift supply depot with donated goods piling up in the lobby, and eventually spilling across the street into a large party room where a free “garage sale” was opened to the fire victims so they could replace destroyed items.

“There was such an outpouring of support,” said the Rev. Mitchell Bechtold of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the parish where many of the town’s Hispanic residents worship. The church was no stranger to this type of disaster, having been the victim of arson in 2016. “By the end of the day, the credit union was full.”

This generous response to neighbors in need is no surprise to Melrose residents. But sustaining that level of community action through a long-term recovery process can be much more challenging, according to Dan Frank, the Initiative Foundation’s former senior manager of community development.

“A lot of people show up at first,” said Frank, who retired from the Initiative Foundation last spring but continues to serve as the Foundation’s disaster and recovery expert. He works out of his Pequot Lakes-area home, ready to help when any future disaster strikes in the 162 cities and 14 counties served by the Foundation. “When a disaster happens, people want to help right away. So you have to make it possible during the first 72 hours to a week to continue to help in the long term. You have to strike while the iron is hot.”

That’s why, in the first days after the fire, the Initiative Foundation offered to assist in Melrose as the community readied for recovery.

“Our objective is to align with community leaders, help with grassroots fundraising and support individuals who have experienced loss while getting businesses back on their feet so workers can generate income,” said Don Hickman, vice president for community and workforce development at the Initiative Foundation.

Even with the quick response, the event rattled the city. “This was a tragic event for these families and businesses,” said Melrose City Administrator Michael Brethorst. “We lost 33 percent of our downtown housing stock and 23 percent of our downtown businesses. It was a huge human impact in a city our size. People were very generous, but you need structure, too, and the Initiative Foundation was instrumental in helping us formulate a plan for recovery.”

Lessons Learned

Recovering from a loss like Melrose experienced takes more than good will and donated clothing and furniture. It takes planning, financial resources and long-term support, as the Initiative Foundation learned in 2010 when a tornado hit Wadena, Minn. Like the Melrose fire, the Wadena tornado did not result in any loss of life. Even so, it left destruction in its wake, wrecking almost 100 homes and dozens of businesses.

“It was a very significant disaster,” said Frank. “We hadn’t had many disasters in our region previous to that, so we never really saw a role for ourselves. But Wadena was so big—we knew we had to help with the recovery.”

One of the things the Foundation discovered during the recovery effort in Wadena is that, like the citizens who rushed to help the fire victims in Melrose, a lot of people come to lend a hand in the first hours and days after a disaster. The hard part, after a disaster becomes “last week’s news,” is making sure there is enough help in place for the long haul of recovery. The Wadena experience, as well as lessons from the windstorm that struck the Brainerd Lakes area in 2015, led to some simple principles to guide the Initiative Foundation’s approach to disaster relief.

First, says Frank, there has to be a rapid effort to set up the long-term plan. The Foundation begins its response by contacting leaders in the affected city and asking what it can do to help, and asking what the community needs. The Foundation also asks what it can do to help with organizing and communicating. But it plays only a supporting role, letting local leaders drive local decisions.

Making it easy to give money—and setting up an account and necessary administrative support—is also key. In Melrose, the Initiative Foundation took the lead in setting up a Fire Relief Fund and organized a group of local leaders to serve as administrators. As of a recent accounting, the Relief Fund had raised more than $113,000 from local individuals, businesses, banks as well as grants from area foundations, including $50,000 from the Blandin Foundation, a $25,000 business recovery grant from AgStar and a $5,000 matching grant from the Initiative Foundation to kick start donations.

The Fire Relief Fund, established to provide ongoing support after the “lights and sirens” phase of the emergency had passed, has been put to good use: $42,000 has been granted to the dozen small businesses displaced by the fire to help them rebuild in Melrose. More grants are pending.

Plans to replace the two century-old buildings that were lost are still up in the air. Among the displaced businesses were the popular Middy’s Bar & Grille (formerly known as Earl’s, where local lore has it that any man who was disrespectful to women could be ejected), several accounting, insurance and real estate businesses, a coffee shop and a small Hispanic convenience store.

 Diverse and Connected

Just as important as the business infrastructure, the potential loss of neighbors—including workers and school children who are part of the town’s economy and community fabric—worried civic leaders. Much of the help given to the displaced families came in the form of non-cash contributions and assistance in finding affordable places to live—no small task in a town with a tight housing supply.

More than $20,000 has been paid out to 10 families—all of them Spanish-speaking—who were left homeless by the blaze. Nine of the 10 families have remained in Melrose, with some moving into mobile homes. One affected family purchased a house to put down permanent roots. 

First attracted to the region’s food-processing jobs nearly a generation ago, a quarter of Melrose’s population is Latino. Cultural barriers have slowly been lowering as first-generation newcomers see second- and third-generation successors. Still, some obstacles remain, including language differences and, in the heightened scrutiny of immigrants in the current national atmosphere, worries over the legal status of some area residents. The result has been a reluctance, at times, to seek help in the aftermath of the fire.

“It’s almost an invisible population,” says Mayuli Bales, the director of MultiCultural Ministries for the Catholic Diocese of St. Cloud, who helped coordinate relief activities with the largely Catholic Hispanic population of the area. Bales, a former Initiative Foundation Trustee, says there are an estimated 5,000 Hispanic persons within the Diocese, and that seven Catholic parishes hold weekly Masses in Spanish, including St. Mary’s in Melrose. While relationships with the larger community have been generally good, Bales said, many of the displaced workers were surprised by the outpouring of support after the fire.

“We were surprised by the size of the response and all the things that people were bringing to the victims,” she said. “It was a little overwhelming at first. But after a few days, we started buildingtrust and relationships. Collectively, we were able to work through this tragedy and make a learning experience of how we can work together.”

Reflecting Melrose’s sense of a stronger identity, forged in a fire that helped bring people closer, a new billboard greets visitors on Interstate 94. Featuring a photo of smiling and recognizable Melrose citizens, including the town police chief, Craig Maus, a mixed-race gymnast and a Hispanic nurse, the sign says Melrose is, ‘STRONG, DIVERSE, CONNECTED.”

There’s no discounting the hardships that the fire brought, and the challenges that came with them. But these days, Melrose is feeling pretty optimistic.

“It wasn’t just the Hispanic community that was affected by the fire,” said Bechtold, “It affected everyone in the town. There is still a cultural divide between Spanish speakers and the rest of Melrose, but they are becoming less and less, over time. Hispanics have been in Melrose so long that Melrose has begun to see them as our own. It’s sort of like when Melrose was starting out and all the Germans spoke German while the Irish spoke English.”

Somehow, it all worked out. “We have a lot to give thanks for, and I keep hearing a saying in Spanish that I hear a lot around Melrose,” said Bechtold, reflecting back over the past year. “It’s ‘Gracias a Dios.’

“Thanks to God!”

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