Reopening of Milan's gas station is a big step forward for owners from Micronesian island
Opening a full-service gasoline station may sound like a throwback to the good old days, but for the owners of the Island Service Company, it's a warp-speed leap into the future.
The owners of Milan's newly opened service station are all from an island in the Federated States of Micronesia so small it has no cars whatsoever.
"No cars and no electricity,'' said Gabriel Elias of the island of Romanum, which he called home until two years ago. Now, he's one of 15 investors in the service station where the attendants fill your gas tank and squeegee your windows, and apologize if any wash spills over. The owners' native home is part of a collection of 40 islands comprising Chuuk, one of four states making up the island federation in the southwest Pacific.
Milan is home to more than 70 Micronesians, all part of an extended family from the tiny island.
Erik Thompson, owner and president of the Sun Prairie Bank in Milan, is the bridge between this Chippewa County community of Norwegian heritage and the tropical island. Thompson lived in the Federated States of Micronesia while serving with the Peace Corps in the early 1980s.
Thompson maintained a close connection with his friends there, and in 2000 some of the island residents came to Milan to live and work. The islands are a protectorate of the United States, and a compact allows residents of the Federated States of Micronesia to work and stay in the U.S.
Their children born in Milan -- there are now five -- are U.S. citizens, but the compact prevents the adults from applying for citizenship. Many of the adults work for a company providing overnight cleanup work at the Jennie-O Turkey Store further processing plant in Montevideo, while others have jobs with another meat processor and local farmers.
Milan has been without an operating gas station for about 11 months; the downtown property was returned to Sun Prairie Bank's ownership in September.
Milan Mayor Nancy Strand hosted a meeting last year in hopes it would be possible to raise funds and create a cooperative to reopen the station, but the idea didn't attract enough support.
Elias said the Micronesian community began discussing late last year the idea of creating their own company to reopen the station. Not everyone supported taking the risk, but 15 eventually decided they would.
They developed a business plan with Cecilia Alvarez at the Entrepreneurial Assistance Network. They believe the station can be a break-even venture if it finds support from the local community, said Thompson.
The owners don't expect the kind of profits Wall Street likes, but that's not what is important here. The opportunity to provide work for members of the Micronesian community in Milan, and gain an understanding of business practices, is what makes this investment so worthwhile, Elias explained.
There are no real opportunities for work on Romanum, and finding capital to open a business there is impossible for most people, he said.
The fact that Milan needed a service station also mattered greatly to the investors, he said. "This is our place. We need a gas station and we think we can make this happen,'' said Elias.
The station is located on the town's Main Street and currently sells gasoline and diesel fuel with hours of 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturdays.
If thing go as hoped, the owners will eventually start selling snacks and convenience items at the station. They are looking into the possibility of leasing the service bay to a mechanic.
Needless to say, there are no experienced mechanics in the Micronesian community in Milan. Elias said they look forward to the opportunity to learn.