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Albert Lea hopes Farmland rebuilds

By Amy Olson

aolson@postbulletin.com

ALBERT LEA -- The images of Albert Lea's worst fire are seared into the minds of residents and city officials.

One year ago Monday, sparks from a welding torch ignited a blaze that gutted the front two buildings of the Farmland Foods plant in one of the worst fires Albert Lea Fire Chief Richard Sydnes has ever seen.

The remains of the plant, where 500 employees once worked, still stand. Sydnes said he expects the remaining part of the building will be torn down this fall; the Albert Lea City Council voted in January to demolish it within nine months.

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The city continues to work with Farmland in hopes the cooperative will rebuild, which company officials promised as recently as April. The company's proposal calls for a plant that would initially employ 720 people.

Allen Pelvitt, director of the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, said he remains hopeful the company will follow through.

"We're optimistic that could happen," but dealing with eight insurance companies has slowed the process, he said.

Investigators say the blaze started as workers cut out part of the old sprinkler system. Sydnes said the sparks ignited materials on the other side of the wall in a locked room.

Firefighters thought the fire was contained to the first two buildings, which housed a warehouse and shipping department. What they didn't realize was that the fire had burned through an 8-foot gap in the building.

"It was in there before we got there," Sydnes said.

Once the fire got into a 4-foot-high crawl space running through the plant, it spread quickly. Sydnes said crews moved fast to leave the burning building. Shortly after, floors began to cave in.

Fire crews from Austin and departments throughout Freeborn County worked 41⁄2; days to extinguish the fire, which kept re-igniting.

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The devastating fire hasn't destroyed the community. The latest figures released by the Minnesota Department of Economic Security show the area had a 4 percent unemployment rate last month. By comparison, Mower County had a 2.8 percent jobless rate.

Pelvitt said economic diversification, developed during the past decade, has created a broader job base.

Retailers in the area report strong sales well past the Christmas holiday, when sales tend to fall off. Pelvitt said two new restaurants have opened.

"They're survivors. They'll make it through this," he said.

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