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Flood's economic impact on area mixed

Though hardware store sales up, gains may not offset losses...

Shopping for sump pumps
David Meth from Tile Masters in Fargo wheels a load of sump pumps to the checkout while shopping Wednesday at Nodak. Meth purchased the pumps for distribution to metro-area homes in need. David Samson / The Forum

Though hardware store sales up, gains may not offset losses

A small crowd sat on lawn chairs for hours at Fargo's Nodak hardware store at Interstate 29 and Main Avenue on Tuesday waiting for a shipment of 600 drain plugs, which disappeared in 45 minutes.

At the Sandbags Warehouse in Fargo, which has sold 800,000 sandbags in the past week, owner John Carlson described sales Wednesday as "pandemonium."

Local businesses offering flood-related products and services are seeing brisk sales at a time when the economic downturn is making customers more reluctant to spend. Other companies have seen sluggish traffic; many have shut down to let employees join flood-fighting efforts.

Experts, who balked at projecting the economic effect of the flood, said the gains made by hardware and sports goods stores - as well as restaurants and hotels serving volunteers - will likely be offset by losses in other sectors.

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"Any guess at the economic impact of this would be a wild one," said David Martin of the Chamber of Commerce of Fargo Moorhead.

Steve Scheel, CEO of the Fargo-based Scheels hardware and sporting goods chain of stores, saw that give-and-take dynamic play out within his company.

Scheels plumbing and electric departments have seen 15 to 20 times the volume of normal March sales. Scheel said his company learned from underestimating demand during the 1997 flood, and the store stocked up on sump pumps, drain plugs and hoses.

"Our sales are off the charts," he said.

But in other departments - including ones that usually see brisk spring traffic, such as home décor - business has taken a hit. At the end of the month, Scheel said, he expected gains and losses to add up to "an exact wash."

At Nodak, manager Greg Yanish, who has been putting in 19-hour shifts for days, said he hasn't had a chance to reflect on how much sales have spiked. His rough estimate: "a lot."

At the Grand Junction Grilled Subs in north Fargo, the staff saw a 50 percent increase in sales Wednesday, Manager Joel Booth said. At least half of the customers are volunteer flood fighters, whom the staff can readily recognize by the rubber boots and mud-caked clothes.

But scores of businesses have shut their doors to let employees volunteer in flood-fighting efforts.

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West Acres General Manager Rusty Papachek said the mall closed Wednesday partly to allow employees to focus on the flood and partly because of Wednesday's winter storm. Papachek, who has been helping with sandbagging all week, believes recent traffic at the mall slowed considerably.

"It's hard to say what the ultimate economic impact will be until after it's all over," said Brian Walters, president of the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp.

Managers and owners said they have mixed feelings about the brisk sales. At Nodak, for instance, Yanish said his staff has noticed customers tightening their belts in recent months. Still, it's hard to celebrate the spike in sales.

"I'll rejoice when nobody's house floods," he said, adding his store has been offering a 20 percent discount on sump pumps and 15 percent off rubber boots, among other deals.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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