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Commentary: For Pelican Rapids, losing McDonald's a blow

A flatbed truck carries away the sign from the McDonald's store in Pelican Rapids, Minn., on Monday, March 12. The restaurant closed over the weekend. Special to Forum News Service1 / 2
Mike McFeely, Oct. 17, 2015Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 2

PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn.—They hauled away the Golden Arches the other day in this Minnesota lakes country town, putting the yellow "M" on a flat-bed truck that rolled down Highway 59 toward points unknown.

The McDonald's restaurant in Pelican Rapids is no more, having closed after 10 years of serving Egg McMuffins, Big Macs and those ridiculously perfect french fries to locals, tourists and travelers on South Broadway at the edge of downtown.

Let's be clear, a worldwide hamburger franchise closing isn't necessarily reason for maudlin nostalgia or raging anger. It's not like a longtime, locally owned and beloved restaurant closed. It's not like a major employer shuttered its factory doors.

But for a small town like Pelican Rapids, located about an hour from Fargo-Moorhead in Otter Tail County, having a McDonald's represented a point of pride while providing a nice gathering spot for the local fellows to gather, drink coffee and solve the world's problems. And, yes, some people did lose their jobs. That's important in a rural community.

"I just drove by there and there was nobody in the parking lot," Pelican Rapids Mayor Brent Frazier said last week. "It's kind of a hollow feeling. There's sort of an emptiness on that end of town now."

If that seems a little dramatic for a cookie-cutter fast-food joint like McDonald's bolting town—heck, there are more than 16,000 of them in the United States alone—remember that Pelican Rapids is not Fargo-Moorhead, Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls or Alexandria. If a fast-food place leaves one of those larger cities, it's no big deal because there are always more to fill the void. But for Pelican, population 2,400, having a McDonald's was a big deal.

Of the nearly 300 McDonald's restaurants in Minnesota, Pelican Rapids was one of the smaller markets the franchise inhabited.

"We feel it was pretty unique," Frazier said. "People from other communities would ask, 'How did you get a McDonald's? We're a bigger town than you and we don't have one!'"

The McDonald's was connected to the Park Region Cooperative convenience store/gas station/bait shop, which remains in operation and is busy as ever. The businesses seemed to complement one another nicely, with customers from the gas station running into the restaurant for a quick burger or breakfast sandwich.

McDonald's leased the space from the co-op. The franchise's corporate offices signed a 10-year lease in April 2008 to much hoopla. The Pelican Rapids store was owned and operated by Lincoln Kalenberg of Fergus Falls. Kalenberg also owns the McDonald's in Fergus Falls.

Reached by phone and asked why the restaurant closed, Kalenberg said simply, "McDonald's and the building's owner couldn't come to a mutually beneficial lease agreement."

When asked if negotiating leases was a corporate decision and not a local one, Kalenberg said, "That is a corporate responsibility."

Greg Larson, general manager of the co-op, said he's been in contact with several possible replacements for the McDonald's, including other fast-food franchises.

"It's been a blow, that's for sure," Larson said. "We're cautiously optimistic. We're hopeful we're going to have something in there soon."

Co-op board member Everett Ballard said the space could be filled with a locally owned coffee or breakfast place, but Larson said he prefers a franchise.

Hamburgers? Tacos? Pizza? Submarine sandwiches? Could Larson give a hint?

"Nope. You'll have to wait and see," he said.

The McDonald's lease runs until mid-April, so if the co-op can secure a new tenant quickly it could open for business just in time for the busy fishing and tourist months. In the meantime, Kalenberg and some McDonald's corporate representatives were in Pelican to decide what should stay and what needed to go from the restaurant. The sign, obviously, was one of the first things to go.

"Sometimes you lose a friend or an acquaintance and there's that sad, hollow feeling," Frazier said. "But then you move on and try to find another friend. That's what we're trying to do. We'll find something to fill that void. You have to keep looking forward."

The mayor and his town, clearly, are mourning a little bit. In some places, losing a McDonald's is a bigger deal than other places.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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