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Lanesboro gradually recovers
By Laurel Druley
Minnesota Public Radio
August 19, 2002

In Lanesboro, the summer tourism season is usually a busy time. The historic town, southeast of Rochester, is a destination spot for people who love to bike, paddle or fish the Root River. But in April, fire destroyed three historic buildings. Arson charges put the blame on the former Lanesboro police chief. People in town say they feel betrayed by one of their own. And now, some say they're trying to survive what's been a slow summer season.

Peggy Hanson
Peggy Hanson, owner of the Cady Hayes House Bed and Breakfast, says her business is doing well. She says on the surface it appears Lanesboro is recovering. The church and school have new additions, and the historic bridge will be restored soon as well.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)

There's a gap in Lanesboro's main street. A spring arson fire took out three buildings. While the rest of the town is still intact, fewer tourists are coming to canoe or go to the theater.

Bed and breakfast owner Peggy Hanson says there's a new form of entertainment this summer. Everyone wants to hear about the fire.

"They've all clamored for the story," Hanson says. "'Tell us the story of the fire.' For some of them it's been hard because they see Lanesboro as a perfect place. This has made them realize this is not paradise. We have our problems, too."

Four months ago, three landmark buildings burned to the ground. Investigators suspected arson. As rumors started to swirl, Police Chief John Tuchek confessed he started a fire behind one of the buildings. He wanted to impress an ex-girlfriend who lived in a second-story apartment.

Bike rental
The owners of the bike shop have set up a trailer and a tent where their shop used to be, to rent out the bikes salvaged from the fire. Kirsten Mensing says her family was worried about bankruptcy at the beginning of the season. But the bike rental business and her bed and breakfast have picked up more business recently.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)

Commonweal Theater director Hal Cropp says the summer's been a bit slow. He thinks tourism is down for a few reasons.

"I think there was some misinformation," Cropp says. "The event of the fire created an image in people's minds that made them think Lanesboro had gone away."

The Scanlon House Bed and Breakfast is a colorful Victorian mansion. Owner Kirsten Mensing says her business has been slow this summer. She says in June, occupancy rates were down more than 50 percent. It's picked up since then. Still, Mensing says guests usually had to make reservations three to six months in advance. That's not the case this season.

Mensing also ran one of the businesses that burned to the ground last spring. Her family still rents out bikes from the vacant lot where the building once stood. They've set up a trailer and a large tent to hold remaining inventory from the Little River General Store.

Downtown Lanesboro
Many in Lanesboro say nationwide the tourism industry felt a pinch. Also news of the fire and bad weather kept tourists away at the beginning of the season. But recently business has picked up.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)

"Everybody goes in and out of their stores and locks up at night," she says. "And we're in a different situation. We padlock everything now. There are no doors to lock. There's a jealousy factor there. To watch everybody else carry on - and you just wish that could be you again, in the same spot, doing the same thing."

It's still not clear whether the stores will be rebuilt. Insurance did not cover the cleanup costs or the historic value of the buildings.

Kirsten Mensing's family didn't just lose a business. She and many of her neighbors say they were betrayed by a friend and neighbor. Before confessing to authorities, former Police Chief John Tuchek helped Mensing and her family dig through the rubble. Mensing and others say this is a place where community is like family.

"I want to see this guy get what he deserves," Mensing says. "He's destroyed a lot of things for a lot of people."

Laneboro's former police chief is scheduled to appear in court this week. And, the city council will hire a new police chief.

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