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Construction Drives Comfrey Comeback
By Mark Steil
November 20, 1998
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Cold winter winds usually signal an end to the construction season, but not in one southwestern Minnesota community. Residents of Comfrey have been rebuilding at a furious pace since a March tornado bulldozed through town. In the next month they'll see a new grocery store open, the town's fire hall completed, and ground broken for a new school. With virtually every business in town expected to reopen and most homeowners rebuilding, it appears the tornado will be remembered as a fresh start for the prairie village, instead of the beginning of the end.

BIG THINGS ARE HAPPENING in a white, steel-sided building in downtown Comfrey. Nick and Tamara Berning are working overtime to get their grocery store open for business.

Berning: I think we'll have more space than we did before. I think it looks a lot more pleasing to the eye than it did before, 'cause it was such an old building before.
Along with 75 percent of the town, the old brick grocery was destroyed by the March 29 tornado. Nick Berning says the decision to rebuild came quickly.
Nick Berning: Pretty much went by what we had before. Didn't do no surveys or nothing, just put it up and see what happens.
The coolers are ready, the take-out counter is finished, the checkout is almost done. The Bernings are about ready to stock the shelves. Tamara says that will be a big moment for them and for town residents.
Tamara Berning: Some people stop in everyday to see how it's going. Sometimes I know it probably seems like they're bothering us, but we really enjoy the company, 'cause we miss it. We want to see the people and see what they feel like. It's nice to know that they know us and we know them.
The grocery store is just part of the remarkable rebirth of the Comfrey business district. Nearly every business in town is rebuilding, and town officials haven't given up on the two that are not. They have financial incentives for anyone willing to build a restaurant/bar, and they're hoping for a newspaper. The Comfrey Times and Darfur Gazette moved to Darfur after the tornado destroyed the paper's office, but officials hope it will return. While a nearby work crew hustles to complete the fire hall, Mayor Linda Wallin says the town's strong business base will survive the tornado.
Wallin: We've counted overall, there's probably between 20 and 25 businesses in town, and that's really amazing. They're not all on Main Street, you know, they're in some of the outlying blocks. But it is a big business district for a town of 400 people.
Part of the reason for Comfrey's commercial success is its relative retail isolation: the nearest K-Mart is 25 miles away in New Ulm. The town's business mix is also important. Iowa State University economics professor Ken Stone says Comfrey is "quite unusual." He says not many Midwest towns its size have such a healthy business mix. Stone says Comfrey is fortunate to have the Bernings' grocery store; his study shows a grocery is the most important small-town business.
Stone: To me, it's a linchpin business in a town. Once it goes, people have no choice but to leave town on a fairly frequent basis to buy necessities of life. And when they go to a bigger town, ostensibly to purchase groceries, they will many times buy other things they could have bought in their hometown, thereby debilitating many of the other businesses in town.
Some of the other businesses in Comfrey are a hardware store, insurance agencies, beauty shop, grain elevator, convenience store, bank, and soon to open: Charles Lehman's drug store.
Lehman: Three weeks, roughly. The building is up and ready to go and we're ready to move in.
Lehman says staying in business after the tornado was a stressful task. Essentially, he had two jobs: running the drugstore and constructing a new building. First he filled prescriptions out of his house. Then he moved the business into a 32-foot trailer, then later, a 60-foot model. Shortly after construction started on his new building downtown, a wind storm blew it down and worker's started again from scratch. Still, Lehman says he's happy to stay in Comfrey.
Lehman: There were other places I could have went. I've got customers from probably a 30- or 40-mile radius. And one day it kind of dawned on me that it would be relatively foolish to move away from my customers. Because I still had 'em. Especially after the first month, I could see that I was going to retain them.
Lehman says his monthly receipts are down just a little, running about 85 percent of his pre-tornado business. Customer loyalty is a big deal in Comfrey; even grocery store owner Nick Berning wishes he'd hurry up and open.
Berning: Got to have a store. I got to drive out of town now to buy groceries. You never make time to drive out of town. You're always busy.
Everyone counts in Comfrey, and Mayor Linda Wallin is counting every head. She says many homes have been repaired and at least 25 new ones built. When all the construction is complete, Wallin says the town's population will be just under the pre-tornado number: about 415 compared to 426.