Editor's opinion column.
Last week I saw a photo on Facebook of the city crew taking down the Orchid Inn signs on the corner of Main Street and 5th Avenue SE. My friend Suzanne Kral had snapped the photo—just happened to drive by at the right time. I asked Suzanne if I could share that photo on the newspaper’s Facebook page. She said sure. The photo is posted here with this column.
That photo generated a lot of traffic on our Facebook page. Like any media source, we like traffic. These are big numbers for us: it reached nearly 8,000 Facebook users; 2,500 clicked on it; 400 people reacted with comments, likes, shares. For readers that don’t follow Facebook, I apologize for this technical stuff—just know, that is a lot of reaction.
Why am I just a little peeved? That’s a long story. It has to do with a few negative comments made on the post. Really, just a few, but they peeved me a little bit anyway.
Here is some of the long story. I love the Orchid Inn as much as anyone. The Orchid Inn is the reason I live in Sleepy Eye. My dad, Warren Sandmann, is the brother of Marge Stimpert—as in Marge and Don Stimpert, the founders of the Orchid Inn. We moved to Sleepy Eye, from Oklahoma, in the spring of my first grade year in school. (Short aside: it was April, it snowed, we had to go to the Palace, in their basement, to buy boots. Very excited kids!) Anyway, we moved to Sleepy Eye because Marge and Don asked my dad to come help manage the Orchid Inn. He’d been working in the bar and hospitality business in Oklahoma.
My first memory of the Orchid Inn is the wedding of my cousin Rita and Donnie Billmeier. This was before the Minnesota Room. I remember their wedding cake sitting on a table by the step down to the dining room. (Rita, if it wasn’t like that, don’t ruin my memories!) Another vivid memory is standing in the unfinished Minnesota Room with light snowflakes drifting down. I think I was about 11 then.
I worked at the Orchid Inn as a teenager in the late 1960s and early 70s, washing dishes. Those were very busy times at the Orchid. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, we had carts full of dirty dishes lined up along the kitchen hallway that seemed to never end. The dining room was busy, there was probably a big group in the Minnesota Room. It was hustle, hustle, hustle. My daughters took the same career path as teenagers in the mid to late 1990s. I always told them, “You cannot ask for two weekend nights off, you either work Friday night or Saturday night. That’s when they really need you.”
What happened to the Orchid Inn? People’s dining out habits changed; fast food places starting popping up; things just slowed down a bit. But, the Orchid remained the place to go for wedding receptions and large meetings and dinners. The pace in the dining room slowed a little. It’s nobody’s fault. Times changed.
Rita and Donnie joined Marge and Don at the Orchid Inn, and eventually became the owners. A pretty smooth transition, it was business as usual as far as community impact. The Orchid Inn remained Sleepy Eye’s privately owned event center. When they decided to retire they sold the business. That was in 2002. Through the various ownership combinations since then, the Orchid Inn just did not thrive. Likely for lots of reasons: inexperience, unrealistic expectations, poor management decisions, too much to handle, spotty service and food quality. There were highs and lows for each owner. In the end, it was not enough revenue to cover expenses. That is the story of businesses that don’t make it everywhere.
Not enough money meant not enough maintenance of that big, sprawling facility. The roof leaked for years. If there had been enough money, it would have been fixed.
By the end, the city was the owner of the Orchid Inn through a default on an EDA loan. It became clear that something had to be done. Either fix the Orchid, or build a new event center. Sleepy Eye had long enjoyed the benefits of having the area’s best place to host really big events. Sending weddings and business meetings down the road just didn’t seem like a good idea for a community that preferred progress over stagnation or loss.
Those negative comments on the Facebook post? They went along the lines of, “That’s stupid. They should have just fixed the Orchid and not spent so much money.”
You know what? That was the first thing the city looked into. Why go through the pains of building a new event center, when they could drop about a million dollars and have a sparkly new Orchid Inn?
Sorry folks. It didn’t work out that way. The architect’s estimate to make the Orchid Inn usable—new roof and exterior repairs; new heating/air conditioning, plumbing and electrical; interior finishes; and demolition of the motel and dining room—came to $1.9 to $2.4 million. At the time, the committee had included a wish to bring in some light with large windows or doors. That estimate couldn’t even allow for those aesthetic upgrades. It would pretty much be the same dark box, for about $2 million.
On the other hand, the rough estimate for a brand new facility, attached to the hotel, came in at $2.9 to $3.6 million. “New” was chosen as the way to go. As the plans firmed up a final budget of no more than $4 million was adopted. Now we are enjoying the beautiful new event center, and the city is still under budget with just a few things to complete.
Go to the auction and buy a memory. But, when you are there, look up and around. Sometimes buildings are beyond reasonable repair.
On a more positive note: the majority of the comments on the Facebook post were along the lines of, “I have so many fun memories of the Orchid Inn . . . working there . . . mom working there . . . dances” and “Oh, the stories I could tell.”
The Orchid Inn was a place of fun and great memories for many of us who grew up in Sleepy Eye. The Sleepy Eye Event Center is a wonderful replacement and will be the home of many memories to come. Thank you, city council and city management, for your decision and hard work to make this happen.