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Limited help limits business: Excel Cleaners shutting down; owners cite employee retention challenges as cause

Brother and sister tandem Beth and Jay Wilhelm look over an item before sending it off to a customer Wednesday at Excel Cleaners in Dickinson. The family-run dry cleaning shop is set to close Friday after more than six decades in business.

People in and around Dickinson will soon need to travel a much longer distance for their dry cleaning needs.

After more than six decades in business, family-owned Excel Cleaners will close its doors on Friday, leaving a fabric care void in town.

Jay Wilhelm, who, along with his sister, Beth Wilhelm, owns and operates the dry cleaning business on Third Avenue East in Dickinson, said it is with a heavy heart that he prepares to close his family's business. His reason: can't find and keep enough good employees.

A number of employers in Dickinson in the service industries have cited problems attracting workers. Another local business owner, who asked to remain anonymous because of a pending sale, voiced the same type of concern this week.

"There is a lot of good that comes with the oil boom," Jay Wilhelm said. "But there are also some negative things that accompany it. Those of us who have been around long enough remember the oil boom of the 1970s and the subsequent crash in the '80s. They say that won't happen again, but you never know.

"We don't like the fact that we have to shut down, but our hands are tied," he added. "We've been short on help for quite a while. It's just so difficult to get and retain employees."

Excel Cleaners employs nine people, including two full-time.

"One of our employees, this is the only job they've ever had," Beth Wilhelm said. "We have people who are in their 50s who have been with us since high school and you're going to see more mom-and-pop businesses in Dickinson closing their doors."

Wilhelm said his building is not for sale and that he offered, to no avail, to have his location serve as a drop-off point for one of the Bismarck area dry cleaning services.

Dickinson Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Cooper Whitman said the issue of employee shortages for businesses is a symptom of the housing problem in southwestern North Dakota.

"It's unfortunate that a long-standing business like Excel Cleaners will be closing its doors," Whitman said. "Any community in the country would love to have our business climate, but, unfortunately, our housing situation is lagging behind -- something that is typical in an area experiencing a lot of business growth. It usually takes a year or two for housing to catch up."

For the Wilhelms, waiting another year or two for a larger pool of potential employees isn't an option. Come Friday afternoon, pick-up appointments for existing orders will be the only service that Excel Cleaners -- a business that was set to celebrate its 63rd year in Dickinson -- will provide.

Jay and Beth's father, Gene, still lives upstairs in the Excel Cleaners building.

"We literally grew up here," Beth Wilhelm said Wednesday from behind the counter at her soon-to-be former place of business. "When we say this place is in our blood, we really mean it's in our blood."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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