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35W Bridge Flushes Plumbing Firm's Home

Minneapolis Star Tribune - written by Jon Tevlin

Frank's Plumbing becomes the latest I-35W business casualty. Tons of porcelain fixtures must go to make way for contractors.

In the far back corner of a 14,000 square-foot warehouse, past the sea of toilets sitting unconnected and gape-mouthed, and past the rows of heating radiators exposed like the ribs of a prehistoric beast, Frank's Plumbing worker Dale Eidum pointed to the daunting task ahead.

"Let me show you the Wall of China," he said.

Lining the wall are 5,600 toilet-tank lids, a monument to porcelain. It took "nine guys, nine months" to drag them -- and thousands of other old plumbing fixtures and widgets -- from the old Frank Plumbing Sales Co. building on Washington Avenue S. to the new place across the Mississippi River on SE. 2nd Street.

That was two years ago. Now, Frank's will have to do it again by Jan. 11 or face going out of business. The Minnesota Department of Transportation purchased the building because the land is needed for constructing the new Interstate 35W bridge.

Frank's Plumbing, which has been in business for more than 60 years, is the latest victim of the aftershocks of the bridge collapse. Two other businesses also have been forced to relocate recently to make way for construction.

The 65 kids at the KinderCare Learning Center across the street from Frank's left Oct. 22 after MnDOT gave the word that it needed their space. The playground sat empty last week as workers gutted the day-care building.

"Everybody was pretty sad," said Casandra Pieri, the manager. "We were a close family." The kids have all been relocated to other day-care centers, she said.

A third business, W.P. Ventures, on the south side of the river, also had to move and MnDOT obtained other parcels that were empty.

MnDOT did not condemn the Frank's property but made an offer to the owner that was accepted, said Kevin Gutknecht, agency spokesman. The property will be used for the construction company and for storage, then turned into a parking lot for a nearby company, Metal-Matic Inc., which lost land to MnDOT, Gutknecht said.

Back at Frank's, where mammoth stained-glass windows dangle over the snarled remains of ancient plumbing, employees were angry -- and anxious about their futures. They acknowledged that the shop "watchdog," a miniature poodle named Lucky, hadn't lived up to her name.

"We just moved here and it's hard enough to get your business back," said Frank Miles, the manager. "This is unbelievable."

Miles said it took a year and a half to find a new location when they had to vacate the Washington Avenue building, and even though they must be out in two months, they haven't found a new spot. It has to not only be large and affordable, but also be zoned correctly.

Which means that owner Milt Frank, who recently had a liver transplant, might decide to sell. "The stress of this hasn't helped him," Miles said.

That wouldn't sit well with customer Sarah Walter, who snapped up an "extremely reasonable" claw-foot tub recently for her 1910 home near Uptown.

"I know it sounds funny to say this about a store, but it would be a real loss to the city," Walter said. "I knew about Frank's before I needed a bathtub. It was just a fun place to go, kind of like a museum. No place else has the selection or expertise."

Kirk Schnitker, the attorney representing Frank's, said his client understands that the state needs the property. They've agreed to a price for the building, but bids to move tons of inventory, some of it from the 1940s, range from $65,000 to $90,000 and if he can't find a suitable new place, Frank may sell.

"That's looking more likely," Schnitker said. "The clock is ticking."

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