Minnewaukan poised for growth despite flood

MINNEWAUKAN, N.D.--For the most part, Minnewaukan has weathered the worst of a two-decades-old Devils Lake flood that had threatened to wash the community away.

MINNEWAUKAN, N.D.--For the most part, Minnewaukan has weathered the worst of a two-decades-old Devils Lake flood that had threatened to wash the community away.

Some $20 million has been spent--virtually all of it from federal or state programs--in the past four years to move infrastructure and buildings to higher ground. The trophy prize is a new $10.6 million Minnewaukan Public School built a couple of miles away in what is now referred to as the Streifel Addition.

"If we didn't get that money, there'd be no school. It would be a ghost town," said Mayor Myron Jury, who was school superintendent for 20 years and retired after the new school was built.

While the infrastructural restoration is all but complete, the community's economic recovery remains a distant goal.

"We'll get there. It's just going to take some time," he said.


Lost to water

Minnewaukan, which serves as the Benson County seat, currently has a unofficial population of around 200, depending on who you ask. In 2010, the U.S. Census counted 224 residents. The population was 401 in 1990, a couple of years before the most recent wet cycle began.

Back then, the western shore of Devils Lake was eight miles east of Minnewaukan. When the new school opened in January 2013, an emergency levee was all that kept the lake from flooding the old school.

Since 1999, Minnewaukan has lost 37 houses and one church, according to City Auditor Sherri Thompson. The city has also lost its grocery store, gas station and, most recently, its bank. The city's only grain elevator is closing, too, another victim of the high water table and dwindling land base.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, who was North Dakota's governor from 2000 to 2010, has worked with several agencies to address Devils Lake flooding. As governor, he launched efforts to protect homes, roads and other infrastructure.

In the Senate, he pressed FEMA to make nearly $6 million in funding available to relocate the city of Minnewaukan in 2011. The same year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved Advanced Protection Measures for the community, which are now in place, according to a news release.
"The real key to Minnewaukan's future, however, will be the outlets we worked so hard to build," Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement, referring to several outlets built around Devils Lake. "As a result, the Devils Lake region has been growing.
"The people of Minnewaukan have shown tremendous perseverance in their efforts to preserve their community."

Helping hands

In 2010, the city applied for FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, a property acquisition program commonly referred to as a buyout.


"Back when the lake was coming up, the city decided if we want to save the town, we've got to do something," Thompson said.

The FEMA program, which officially began in 2012, provided nearly $4 million through four separate programs, according to Justin Messner, hazard mitigation specialist with the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services (NDDES).

While 57 properties were eligible for acquisition, only 15 ended up in the program. Ten of them were destroyed and the others were moved, one of them to the Streifel Addition.

Property owners dropped out of the program for a variety of reasons, including dissatisfaction with the financial offers.

"We would have liked to have purchased more properties than we did. We did our best to make fair offers," Messner said. "The majority of these homes were in imminent danger. They were being protected only by an emergency levee. If that levee hadn't been there, or if the levee had failed, those homes would have been under water."

The lake elevation also contributed to people's decisions, too, according to Thompson.

"These last couple of years, the lake has receded a little bit, so a lot of people dropped out of the program," Thompson said. "But those that wanted to not have to worry about the water anymore, or those who were elderly, decided it was a chance for them to get out of town and not have to worry about it."

Housing or business


Currently, just five families live in the 30-lot Streifel Addition. The school district owns one of the houses, which is rented to a school employee, Superintendent Jean Callahan said. The district also owns two other lots, which are occupied by a school day care center and weight room.

Unlike much of Minnewaukan, the school is growing.

Minnewaukan had a school enrollment of about 300 this past year, up from 275 in the fall of 2012, just before the school moved.

"We're pretty much at capacity," she said.

The enrollment has been as high as 315. About 90 percent of the students live on the adjacent Spirit Lake Nation.

Only about 20 of the district's 65 to 70 teachers and other staff members live in or around Minnewaukan.

"They commute from all over, from Maddock, Devils Lake, Leeds, Carrington," Callahan said of the communities within 50 miles of the school.

Local officials say the community's highest priorities are housing and businesses. But deciding which should come first is a lot like the age-old question about the chicken and the egg.


"There's no place to live here anymore," said Robert "Sally" Ebach, a lifelong resident and owner of Ebach Construction. Except for his son, his other employees commute from other towns.

Although development has been slow so far in the Streifel Addition, officials are hopeful.

"Little by little, I think it'll happen," Callahan said. "The big hinderance right now is we have no businesses left in town. No gas station. No grocery store. Especially, a gas station is something crucial. If we had some of these things, I think people would come."

Signs of hope

City and school officials say interest has picked up lately in the Streifel Addition lots. Some prospective buyers are looking at multiple lots, either to provide a large yard for a single-family home, or to develop multi-unit housing.

What property remains in the "old" Minnewaukan should be safe from floodwaters, although officials are wary of residual problems, such as high water tables and a shrinking tax base.

"Minnewaukan might be a story that plays out for several years out into the future," said Cecily Fong, a NDDES public affairs specialist.

The main business district, as well as the courthouse, are well above the elevation level of 1,458 feet, where Devils Lake would begin spilling naturally and uncontrollably over its banks to the Sheyenne River Valley.


And a new Devils Lake outlet system, plus a short dry spell dating back to the fall, has lowered the lake elevation nearly three feet, from a record 1,454.4 feet in 2011. The lake elevation was 1,451.82 feet on Thursday.

After the new school opened in 2013, local officials were excited by an announcement from a local couple that they would build a gas station-convenience store along U.S. Highway 281, near the Streifel Addition.

However, that project never happened.

New restaurant

These days, however, there is greater hope the community will have a restaurant--and a new bar--soon.

Rick Kost recently purchased the old school building and has spent the past several months remodeling it, classroom by classroom. Rick's West End Bar and Grill is slated to open by early July.

Kost's last business, Rick's Bar, closed in 2013, he said, after disagreements with the property owner. It's been reopened twice in that location since then, by other people, but each time it lasted only weeks or months before closing again.

"I was always wondering what they can do with this building. It'd be a waste to tear it down," Kost said. "I wasn't going to do this, but when the other one went out of business again, I jumped in."


The bar and restaurant, in adjoining former classrooms, are on the east side of the building, with large windows facing the lake, about 200 feet away. The view is a bit obstructed by the emergency levee. Kost, who moved to Minnewaukan from Oshkosh, Wis., in 2006, hopes to build a deck between the bar and the lake.

While there is no lake access for boats near the bar, local officials are working on preliminary plans to provide access on nearby property that could be developed as a park.

Kost also has plans for developing other parts of the school.

Five other classrooms likely will be converted into lodging. He also has plans for community entertainment in the gymnasium.

The west side of the building, facing the street, could become a local mini-mall, with a convenience store and other businesses.

"You've got to go to Devils Lake for just about everything," the mayor said. "This is a world-class lake. but nobody does anything here, to promote the west end. I want to make the west end an attraction."

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