By Mark Fischenich
---- — A Mapleton-area farmer and businessman is planning to go into the hardware business, reopening a key retail spot on the city's Main Street that's been vacant for more than a year.
"This is a huge building on Main Street," said Mapleton Mayor James Swanson, who predicted "a big ripple effect on other businesses" in town. "People will say, 'As long as I'm here to get some nuts and bolts, we might as well get some bread and milk."
And there will be a lot more than nuts and bolts under Jim Heins' plans for the 10,000-square-foot building that was run by Lorena Fron for many years before being sold to an Owatonna man who had to close it in October of 2012 due to health reasons. Heins purchased the building a year later, has already hired a store manager in Steve Breiter and is in the process of a wholesale updating of the building in preparation for a mid-March opening.
Beyond standard hardware, Mapleton Farm and Home will offer lawn and garden supplies, housewares, automotive parts and supplies, a wide selection of the varied stuff required to keep a farm running, equine supplies and — if Breiter has his way — bicycles in the summer months. The latter is somewhat of a tribute to Lorena Fron, who ran the store well past retirement age.
"Everybody who owned a bike in town, it came from Fron's," Breiter said.
The store also will offer small engine repair and equipment rental — everything from a sander to a post-hole digger to possibly a backhoe. All of the above is available in Mankato, which is a mere 16 miles north of the town of 1,800. But Heins and Breiter expect the store will draw customers from a radius of 12 to 15 miles, including folks to the north who will enjoy the lack of traffic and the easy parking that comes with shopping in Mapleton.
Heins, a rural Vernon Center farmer who farms more than 9,500 acres of land, already owns a number of local ag-related businesses, including the Mapleton Elevator. City officials pointed to his use of a government-backed loan to help finance the renovation of that deteriorated facility (including eliminating its rodent problem) in recommending approval of another low-interest loan for the hardware store.
"It is now a beautiful state-of-the-art facility," stated a summary from the Mapleton Economic Development Authority that was supplied to the Blue Earth County Board.
Heins paid off the elevator loan last year, a loan that was also provided through Blue Earth County's Small Cities Loan program.
The board Tuesday unanimously approved the latest $75,000 low-interest loan, which is guaranteed equally by the county and the city of Mapleton, to be used for the renovation of the hardware store.
"It's hard to keep a small hardware store open," said Commissioner Will Purvis of Vernon Center. "... But with the focus on larger farming items, there's a real need for that in the area."
Breiter told the board that Heins would be putting $300,000 or more into the building to prepare for opening, later telling The Free Press that improvements cover everything from a new furnace to new wiring to new plumbing.
The structure itself is literally rock solid, though, according to Breiter, who noted its use in the second half of the last century.
"It was a certified bomb shelter," he said.
In four months, sitting next to the town's supermarket, the store will be an anchor of the local economy, Breiter predicts.
"That block will certainly be a powerhouse for business," he said.
And Mapleton residents are clearly looking forward to having their hardware store back.
"The community support has been overwhelming to say the least," Breiter said. "People want this store pretty bad."