The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State budget: a closer look

July 14, 2011

Lack of state building inspectors a problem for restaurant owner

MANKATO — Trong Ho is just one man.

But this man’s livelihood could be in jeopardy without a quick end to the state government shutdown.

“I’m sitting here just shaking,” said the 20-something owner of Pho Saigon, a family-operated Vietnamese restaurant that happens to be caught in the middle of the continued stalemate in St. Paul. “I haven’t slept in a week.”

Ho was planning to move his family’s 5-year-old restaurant to a new and expanded location this summer. But construction projects around the state have slowed or halted completely without state inspectors on the job.

Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato’s $29.5 million renovation of its emergency room could face delays because it needs state inspectors to review concrete and rebar. In addition, Department of Health inspectors need to review expansion plans for the hospital’s specialty clinic and heart center.

A project to install an elevator and add two classrooms at Monroe Elementary in North Mankato is also facing delays because inspectors, as well as some construction permits, are unavailable.

“We were hoping to have the elevator done this summer,” said Jerry Kolander, business manager for Mankato Area Public Schools, expressing some doubt the project would meet its timeline.

In Ho’s case, the plan was to move Pho Saigon from its former location — in front of Home Depot on North Victory Drive — to a more visible location on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and Victory Drive. He’s sharing the building with his sister, who is planning to operate a nail salon.

Construction on the building is nearing completion and Ho has moved much of his kitchen equipment already. He’s even paid for food and liquor licenses. Yet, he can’t open the restaurant for business until state inspectors give their approval.

None of this would be an issue, except Ho has already opted out of the lease on his former location — a decision he characterized as a “gamble,” but a decision he made after advisers told him a shutdown was unlikely to last long.

Now, as the shutdown nears the conclusion of its second week, Ho is left with one location closed for good and the other unable to open.

And in the meantime, all he can do is hope for a quick resolution.

“We’ll be OK for a little while, but it’s starting to hurt,” he said. “It’s starting to hit me, like ‘Whoa, how are we going to get back on track?’”

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