Winds favored visitors traveling here this week for the town’s biggest summer attraction, Turtle Fest.

Winds favored visitors traveling here this week for the town’s biggest summer attraction, Turtle Fest.

Without a heavy deluge of rain and eastern winds, thousands of guests would have been greeted by Perham’s signature scent — odors from an open-air wastewater treatment system.

The odor has become a part of life in recent years for the people who live and work in Perham.

It’s another story for the summer visitors businesses rely on to pay the bills during the winter.

People step out of their cars, get back in and don’t stop at any of the businesses due to the odor. Guests at the Crossings Hotel tell the front desk clerk they’re not coming back.

Perham has battled the odor for two years. Wastewater pours into the city’s outdoor treatment ponds at rates higher than they can handle. The company in charge of the construction project to expand the treatment facility to meet the demands of the growing town has missed deadlines, putting the whole project behind schedule.

City officials estimate the project would be complete by October. In the meantime, they combat the odor with chemical treatments and aeration.

The town’s businesses try to fight the odor and maintain Perham’s reputation. They keep the air conditioning running 24/7 in the summer and can’t take in any outside air. They make jokes about the smell. They assure customers the city is working to fix the problem.

But Doug Hatten, who owns D&V’s Bakery in Perham, said he’s concerned the image will stick.

“It will murder us. We do not want to be known as the stinkiest city in the U.S.”

‘The smell of money’

The lagoon’s problems and its odor are signs of the city’s growing economy.

Much of the economy in the city is based around its industry. Perham is home to KLN Family Brands’ factories for chocolate, pet food, candy and chips and Bongards’ Creameries. The 2,500-population town has more jobs than it does people.

Dan Schroeder, director of the Perham Chamber of Commerce, said the lagoon odor is “a good problem to have.”

It means the town is growing and adding jobs, Schroeder said, anointing Perham the “Williston of Lakes Country,” referring to the North Dakota city at the heart of that state’s oil boom.

As Perham’s economy continues to grow, Schroeder said, “our structures and our services have to grow with it.”

Even business owners who struggle keeping customers due to the smell agree with Schroeder.

“I say, ‘That’s the smell of money,’ ” said Linda Yager, who owns In With The Old, a vintage store.

Like many other business owners, Yager said customers walk in with their noses covered on smelly days.

The lagoon odor is overwhelming – even to Yager, who’s used to the array of scents pumping out of Perham’s factories, such as cat food and black licorice.

Long-term concerns

While Brian Osterday agrees the growth is a good sign, he said the lagoon odor is hurting retailers and other businesses that rely on customers passing through Perham – an Otter Tail County city near many popular lakes.

He owns a wildlife and fur shop, and many of his customers come from neighboring states to fish.

“If they come to Perham and smell that smell downtown, they might not want to come back,” Osterday said.

He’s worried, too, about the long-term effects of Perham’s stinky reputation.

Even if repairs to the wastewater system are complete this fall and the odor is eliminated, how will businesses be able to reach out-of-state customers who didn’t enjoy their first trip to Perham because of the smell?

Osterday said they could be gone for good.
“We’re not going to be able to reach those people out of state. We will have a long-term problem,” he said.