For over a decade, Monticello residents have been patiently waiting for the day when Midwest farm supply and sporting goods store giant Mills Fleet Farm would begin development on a vacant piece of property along Chelsea Road.
That wait came to an end on Wednesday, Aug. 2 as the Appleton, Wisconsin-based retailer opened its 165,000-square-foot space at 320 Chelsea Road with a 6:45 a.m. ribbon cutting ceremony.
“This property has been in our portfolio for a while,” said Hugh Leasum, Mills Fleet Farm’s executive vice president/chief operating officer. “It was not uncommon for the Mills family to purchase land and hold onto it for future development. And the family really felt strongly about Monticello.”
Since the mid-2000s, Leasum said the company has had plans to open a store within Monticello. However, the family’s strategy for growth averaged out to about one new store a year.
“There were other properties like in Ankeny, Iowa or in Carver (Minnesota) that would leap-frog ahead of Monticello.”
But with the purchase of the Wisconsin-based family-owned company by New York-based private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR) in 2016, that slow and steady growth saw a huge acceleration.
“We have an aggressive growth plan (now),” Leasum said. “And we need to add more infrastructure to handle that growth.”
With the approximate 36 acres of land waiting to be developed in Monticello sold off as part of the Mills family’s sale to KKR, the time was right to begin development.
“I recall being in the city of Monticello in April or May of 2016,” Leasum said. “And we actually started construction and permitting work around September.”
Groundbreaking on the new site took place last November.
Monticello Mayor Brian Stumpf said the construction work on the site has set off a buzz within the community.
“Our biggest questions coming into city hall over the last number of years was when is Fleet Farm opening,” he said.
As the concrete has been poured and the walls have been going up over the past eight to nine months, many city officials are looking to the new store to bring an added boost to the local economy.
“Fleet Farm is going to have a tremendous effect on our community,” said Jim Davidson, Monticello city council member and committee member for the Monticello Economic Development Authority. “We expect more people will be pulling off the freeway given the location. And that will lead people into the town to stop, eat and see the community.”
Monticello Chamber of Commerce & Industry Executive Director Marcy Anderson agrees.
“It’s going to bring a lot of new people to the area for shopping,” she said. “With having Fleet Farm as a destination now, it will help open people’s eyes to the amazing things we have here in Monticello.”
Anderson said the store has already become members of the Chamber. In talking with staff members from the city, Anderson said the buzz surrounding the new store has led to an influx of potential retail and other businesses looking to capitalize on the prime location near Mills Fleet Farm.
“Everybody is very excited,” she said. “This is a strong piece, financially, in our community.”
The new big box retailer is not without competition in the Monticello area. Local farm supply store, Runnings, which opened its store, 300 Seventh St. W, in 2014, is well aware of the new kid on block.
“Since we opened the Monticello store we have been very satisfied with the customer loyalty,” said Dennis Jensen, Runnings director of marketing. “And we expect that to continue.”
With news of the new Fleet Farm store opening, Jensen said Runnings has moved up some planned modifications for the Monticello store including some work on the exterior of the building and renovation work on the store’s second entrance near sporting goods.
“We are focusing less on them coming and more on making sure we are the best in our business,” he said.
This is the first Runnings store to be located within the same community as a Mills Fleet Farm.
However, Jensen said Runnings is currently expanding by adding its 41st location in Moorhead – Mills Fleet Farm currently operates a store in Fargo, North Dakota – later this year.
“When we talk about competition or new competition, we see it every day,” Jensen said. “And we deal with it in the same way. We have been in business for 70 years and have good quality items that are fair and reasonably priced and we pride ourselves on our good customer service. No matter who shows up (in the marketplace).”
The new Mills Fleet Farm location is about half-way between the chain’s current stores in Waite Park and Brooklyn Park. Leasum said he anticipates those stores seeing a slight decline from regular customers around the Monticello and Big Lake area, but not much.
“Our market studies indicate a very minimal impact to Brooklyn Park and St. Cloud (Waite Park),” Leasum said. “We think the market here stands on its own.”
The store plans on employing between 150 and 200 people – a mixture of full and part time workers.
Despite the trend of big box retailers across the nation having to downsize, Leasum is confident the Mills Fleet Farm business model will remain strong as it expands its footprint to Monticello.
“Few stores out there are on a growth plan like ours,” he said. “We have been in business for 61 years and have never had to close a store. Our business resonates with people. Our customers want a lot of product interaction. And with that unique base, our store format will always support brick and mortar stores.”
The Monticello Mills Fleet Farm store will be the company’s 37th location across its territory of Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Iowa. Leasum said the company is in the process of constructing a new distribution center in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin to handle the additional growth. He estimates the company to add five new stores – in undisclosed locations – by this time next year.
“We plan to in-fill our existing markets and expand into new ones,” he said. “We are very confident in what we are doing.”
The grand opening celebrations for the new store is still be determined.
And so is Monticello.
Stumpf and Anderson said plans are in the works to compete the Fallon Avenue overpass to help ease traffic near the new store.
But overall, the community is ready for the economic boost the big box store will provide.
“This is going to have a huge impact,” Stumpf said. “Our goal for this community is we don’t want people to think of this as ‘Oh, it’s just Monticello.’ We want people to move here, to work here and to stay here. Mills Fleet Farm will help with that effort.”
Vicki Ikeogu is a freelance reporter for the Monticello Times