New Beginning After Fire
By Jim and Elaine Norland

The new pitched roof allows space for distinctive signage.
A view of the tunnel looking toward the exit.

One might wonder at Doug Jurgens’ luck.

More than two years ago, his Champlin Auto Wash in Mankato, MN burned to the ground. He had decent insurance on the structure, but was woefully underinsured on the equipment.

City planning has turned his once prime location on South Front St. into a neglected part of old downtown, although a renewal program is underway. A nearby shopping mall never got past phase one, and its retailers moved to newer centers, leaving the mall to become government offices. Businesses near his car wash dwindled, too. Even late last year a nearby bank branch closed.

Would you rebuild? The faint-of-heart might want to throw in the towel.

Jurgens isn’t in the faint-of-heart class, though. Thanks to lots of help from family, friends, and commercial allies, he reopened Champlin Auto Wash last October while continuing to rebuild the structure housing the express exterior tunnel operation.

The wash has grown on him since his father, Raymond, bought it in 1969, when Doug was just five years old. Doug stepped on a nail during his first visit, “but they couldn’t keep me out of here anytime after that,” he recalls. He, his brothers and sisters all worked hard at the wash, but Doug seemed most committed.

“My dad told me, ‘If you want this place, show me that you want it and I’ll sell it to you,’” Doug recalls. Through the years of family ownership, equipment and the nature of the wash changed, from the original “California Car Wash Mini Mitter” to conversion to a tunnel system in 2001. Gas sales were part of the business originally, but that was discontinued during the oil crisis of the 1970s.

The wash used to be especially busy on Saturdays as husbands drove their wives to the nearby Mankato Place mall and then came over to clean their vehicles. That tradition went away, too, but business was still reasonably good when fire struck in October 2004. Jurgens’ then-newest piece of equipment — a shampoo extractor machine — malfunctioned, overheated and launched the devastating blaze. Jurgens was left with four brick walls.

Given the other unfavorable trends, one might have considered moving out to where the most traffic now flowed, but that would have been very expensive. “I didn’t want to give up on this neighborhood,” Jurgens told the Mankato Free Press last fall.

His faith in that location seems to have paid off. Champlin Auto Wash — re-equipped and in a larger structure — is already approaching pre-fire business volume. While his own traffic is slower because of community developments, that also gives drivers better ingress and egress. In contrast, a competing wash on the corner of a heavily-used artery is sometimes challenging to navigate, Jurgens notes.

He is continuing to finish the building’s amenities, including bathrooms and a lobby where customers can wait while his crew performs further car care — which may involve interior cleaning and detailing in the expanded space. Three-fourths of the building once was rented to a dry cleaner, but now Champlin Auto Wash commands the entire structure to offer more services than ever before.

The tunnel equipment in action, as seen from the opposite direction.
Interior service and detailing are part of Champlin Auto Wash’s offerings.

The heart of the vehicle washing operation is the tunnel wash now outfitted with used Mark VII high-pressure equipment, located for Jurgens by Jon Walters and Tom Jansen of MyGuy, Inc. in Sherburn, MN. Jurgens cleaned, sanded, repainted and refitted the unit. He gives MyGuy and its principals much credit for answering questions, locating resources and guiding him on chemical selections. Walters told ALN that “the equipment looks like new, and he’s turning out great looking cars.”

The revival of Champlin Auto Wash involved family members including Jurgens’ wife, Jenny, who worked two and three jobs to provide income while the wash was out of business. Doug and his wife sold their home to finance rebuilding the wash, and Doug’s brother bought a house for the family — including sons now in high school and junior high — to occupy during the recovery period.

A brother-in-law gave money to help in the rebuilding, and another brother-in-law even organized a fundraiser to help Jurgens. “That took me a while to accept, because I know of so many who need help,” he says.

Siblings, in-laws, and friends pitched in as well. “They helped us sheetrock, put extrusion plastic on the wall, paint and everything,” Jurgens told ALN in November. “That’s what kept us sane while all this was going on. They’d say, ‘Let’s go see what Dougie’s doing and what we can do to help him out.’”

During the two years the business was closed, the customers of Champlin Auto Wash formed new car-cleaning habits, but Jurgens seems well on the way to winning them back. He has made some minor changes in the wash, adding eight 15-horsepower Superior dryers to replace towel drying, but may again towel off cars if customers demand it.

The new wash structure looks different, too, boasting a 3/12 pitched roof instead of the old flat roof, giving the wash more street appeal with its triangular look. The building facade has a stucco look provided with Dryvit materials.

The entire lot has been resurfaced with new asphalt, assuring a clean look outside. The larger building provides space to detail four or five vehicles at a time, and Jurgens plans to introduce flex-serve options so drivers can get just what they want in aftercare beyond exterior washing.

To re-introduce his wash, Jurgens didn’t advertise much, “just put a sign out there advertising a $5 wash, and that finally caught on.” An article in the Free Press helped let the community know that Champlin Auto Wash was back in business, and as word spread, “it’s been like a reunion,” he told that newspaper.

Doug Jurgens outside his revived car wash.
A vacuum station conveniently close to the tunnel exit.

“I did a small grand re-opening here in late November,” he told ALN, with a local radio station doing a remote broadcast from the site, giving his basic $5 washes free to all comers for a planned two hours, a period he extended to accommodate others. He gave carnations to women visitors, and a pizza restaurant provided pizza slices. “We gave away 153 car washes that day,” he reports.

Drivers who wanted upgraded washes during that event got them for a $5 discount, so the top-grade $10 wash cost motorists just $5 during that promotion. Jurgens also used the event to sell gift cards and VIP wash passes to drivers impressed by the reopened wash.

“I want to do another event like that, but next time with a local shopper paper.” Jurgens said.

One of his losses from the fire was a stack of Auto Laundry News issues that Jurgens used as a reference to successful business practices he could adapt. He’s well on his way to building a new archive, he said. He has a keen appreciation of the car wash industry as a whole, and says it is a helpful business filled with people who are willing to give advice and help.

As elements of his business building, Jurgens wants to expand commercial and fleet business. He already has the county sheriff’s department and the Mankato police department vehicles to wash.

One of his tools in rebuilding business-to-business service will be the VIP wash cards that offer $60 in services for a $50 price. “I need to get key people in place so I can go out and tell different businesses what I have to offer. I need to go out and sell myself.”

He also wants to become in-volved in community programs, supporting fund-raising efforts of civic groups, athletic teams, and others. “I have to go to them and make that happen,” Jurgens observed.

Still another segment of his business plan is cross marketing with area businesses. “That’s all part of the plan to make the business survive and thrive,” he said.

Hours of operation now are 8 to 6 Monday through Saturday, and Jurgens is “testing the waters” on Sunday operation from 10 to 2. “I may extend those hours, but I need to have people in place so I can get some time off,” according to Jurgens. “My son helps out on the Sunday hours, but you still need your family time.” Although she continues to work two jobs, Jenny Jurgens still helps out at the wash, answering the phone, making appointments for detail work, or running a deposit to the bank.

Jurgens and two employees comprise the present staff. The employees use Aladdin pressure washers to prep vehicles as they enter the tunnel, flushing out wheel wells and treating hard-to-reach top and rear areas of each vehicle.

The change to power drying instead of towel drying enabled the wash to operate with fewer employees, but customer response and the growth of interior and detail services may also require staffing up.

Beyond the basic exterior wash, Champlin Auto Wash offers upgrade washes at the $7, $9 and $10 level. Features of that ultimate wash include underbody wash, triple-color foam, Durashield treatment and sealer wax.

“When cars come out of here they’re just gleaming,” Jurgens reports. He’s intent on making his business future just as bright and shiny.