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Salvation Army closes Fairmont store

FAIRMONT — The Salvation Army Thrift Store at 314 Downtown Plaza in Fairmont has closed, the latest victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Salvation Army Northern Division announced Friday that the Fairmont thrift store and those in Faribault, Cloquet and Morris would close, effective immediately.

Tom Kuelbs, Salvation Army service representative for southern Minnesota, said keeping thrift stores operational, especially in outstate Minnesota, has become challenging because of the organization’s financial model of needing to rent space and pay staff.

“There’s no question the store served a role in the community, but it’s very difficult to compete in the retail environment. Then with COVID, it really put the stores in a difficult financial position,” Kuelbs said.

He explained why the Salvation Army’s financial board chose not to use money from a $1 million gift the local Salvation Army received from the Marlin Milbrandt estate to keep the store open.

“I think, in the board’s mind, if the store wasn’t viable in the long term, do we want to use the endowment money to cover that? Is that the ministry we want to be in?” Kuelbs said.

“If the stores aren’t making a profit, then the Army would need to subsidize them, and we don’t want to operate under that model. We want people’s donations to go to programs and services in each county.”

Inventory at the thrift store will be recycled to similar shops. Efforts will be made to keep those donations within the Salvation Army by offering the merchandise to other Salvation Army thrift stores in the region, and Twelve Baskets Re-sale, Fairmont’s other thrift store, will be offered what it can use.

“We’re not going to have a big sale to close things out,” Kuelbs said. “We’re going to try and ‘re-gift’ them to other thrift stores.”

Kuelbs says he’s “gotten an earful” of comments about recent changes for the Salvation Army in Fairmont.

Dwindling membership in its congregation resulted in the closing of its church program in October 2017. In January 2018, the local organization received a $1 million bequest from the Marlin Milbrandt estate. Half of this money, which is 100 percent intact, has been put into a capital reserve account designated for Fairmont, with the other half put into an interest bearing account for Fairmont. In August 2018, Krystal Stover assumed the duties of office manager and case worker for the local Salvation Army.

On April 1, 2019, the Salvation Army relocated its office and food shelf to 303 Downtown Plaza, completing its transition from a corps to a service extension post. Its former building at 114 E. Blue Earth Ave. was sold to Shepherd of the Lakes Lutheran Church a month later.

Many of the comments centered on the Milbrandt gift. Kuelbs said a local board or service unit is being formed to oversee fundraising and decide how money is spent in the county. The Salvation Army has not had a working group or board in Martin County for some time.

“The county has a right to be upset. It’s a disservice to the county to not have a plan for the endowment,” he said.

The new service unit will consist of seven Martin County residents, and Jason Subbert and Chris Gerhardt already have signed on.

“All I can say is we have a group forming to work on the investments we make in Martin County going forward,” he said. “They have identified some issues that need to be addressed, and they will help us figure out how to channel funds toward those programs.

“We’re in Martin County. We’re going to stay in Martin County. There’s no question about that,” Kuelbs said.

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