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Fargo business owned by former ND commerce commissioner recovering following water main break

Michelle Kommer describes HighRoad Partners' transition from Minnesota to North Dakota as "less than wonderful''

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Workers investigate a water main break outside the offices of HighRoad Partners in February 2023.
Contributed / HighRoad Partners

FARGO โ€” A Fargo business that suffered flood damage from a water main break in February has bounced back from the ordeal.

However, the owner of the business has "less than wonderful" things to say about how a move from Minnesota to North Dakota has gone, as well as her interactions with the City of Fargo's insurance provider.

"They've been rude. They've been dismissive. It felt like the movie 'Erin Brockovich' โ€” people getting cancer from the (power) plant were just dismissed, and that's what this felt like," said HighRoad Partners owner Michelle Kommer, referring to the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund, a nonnprofit organization that serves as a self-insurance pool for North Dakota political subdivisions, including the City of Fargo.

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Michelle Kommer, far right, says she is grateful for cleanup help from co-workers and others after a water main break caused damage to her downtown Fargo business and home in February 2023.
Contributed / HighRoad Partners

A spokesman for the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund expressed sympathy for Kommer's situation, but maintained that under state law, the city and therefore the agency are not obligated to cover any losses arising from the water main break.

Kommer launched HighRoad Partners, which offers insurance to individuals and small businesses, as well as human resource services, about three years ago after purchasing Arneson Ovsak, a Moorhead agency that specialized in selling insurance.

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After buying and rebranding the Moorhead insurance agency, Kommer, who recently served as North Dakota's commerce commissioner, moved the business across the Red River to downtown Fargo and undertook a multimillion-dollar rehab of two storefronts at 209 and 211 NP Ave.

A portion of the property houses the business side of HighRoad Partners, while the second floor is home to Kommer and her family.

Kommer said she was in her home the morning of Feb. 7 when a co-worker called to alert her that flooding was occurring in the basement of the building.

"I came downstairs to find the basement full of about 4 1/2 feet of water gushing with a current. I saw one of my daughter's baby shoes traveling in a current that came around a corner; it was then I realized the severity of the situation," Kommer said, recalling the incident.

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Michelle Kommer says the lower level of her business and home in downtown Fargo was left in shambles after it was flooded with water and clay following a water main break.
Contributed / HighRoad Partners

Having recently moved in, Kommer said they still hadn't unpacked some things, including plastic tubs containing family mementos and photos.

The basement also contained a newly assembled gym, her daughter's engagement gifts and furniture, according to Kommer, who added that new water heaters and boilers had recently been installed in the lower level as well.

Kommer said that prior to making the urgent call to her that morning, her co-worker had ran outside to alert a crew of city workers who were in front of the business dealing with a water main break.

Kommer said her co-worker had been aware of the presence of the work crew for a while, but hadn't realized water was entering the basement until she heard strange noises coming from that area.

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Former North Dakota Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer purchased Arneson Osvak, a Moorhead agency that specialized in selling insurance policies to individuals and small businesses, in 2020. She relaunched the business as HighRoad Partners and added "in-sourced" human resource services. David Samson / The Forum

According to Kommer, one of the city workers came into the business and handed her a card, stating he was sorry about what had happened and that they were working on getting the water shut off.

She added that she and others in the office were told by the city worker that it was a city water main break and the city's insurance would cover it.

Kommer said she received the call from her co-worker around 7:47 a.m. and she estimated the water was turned off a little before 9 a.m.

Besides personal items lost, Kommer said the flooding took out a new elevator as well as the new water heaters and boilers.

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Personal and family belongings were among the things damaged when a water main break in February sent water and clay into the basement of a business and home in downtown Fargo owned by Michelle Kommer.
Contributed / Highroad Partners

All told, she said the damage caused by the water and large amounts of mucky clay that found its way into the lower level of her building exceeded $500,000.

And, according to Kommer, what the city worker told her about the city's insurance covering the damage turned out not to be the case, as the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund has told Kommer the city is not responsible for any damages caused by the flooding.

In addition, Kommer said her commercial and homeowner insurance providers have also denied coverage, stating the damage was not covered under her policies.

Kommer said she anticipated her commercial and homeowner insurance wouldn't cover the loss, but she believes a case could be made that the city's insurance should provide some form of compensation.

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She said there is no appeals process available when it comes to the insurance reserve fund's decision and she said the outcome of any lawsuit would likely hinge on the question of negligence.

Kommer said it is hard to know what kind of case might be made, as the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund, citing the possibility of pending litigation, is no longer providing her with information about the water main break.

"They've blocked us from a very early point," she said, adding that aside from the question of who might be responsible for the damage, she's been been dismayed by what she described as disrespectful communication from the insurance reserve fund.

"All I have are these very insensitive people telling me what their rules are and I'm just supposed to believe them," she said.

Brennan Quintus, CEO of the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund, said that for NDIRF coverage to apply, the City of Fargo would have to be legally obligated to pay for the property damage.

But, according to Quintus, the North Dakota Supreme Court has held that cities providing water service do so in a governmental capacity for the public welfare and cities are immune to claims of damage resulting from their operation and maintenance of water systems.

He said the NDIRF claims team has thoroughly investigated the claim made by HighRoad Partners and has determined the facts indicate the city of Fargo is immune from suit under North Dakota law and, therefore, the city is not legally obligated to pay for the property damage and NDIRF coverage cannot apply.

The damage to HighRoad Partners, Quintus added, "is incredibly unfortunate. As I mentioned to Michelle Kommer a few weeks ago, I would not wish this situation on anyone. However, the NDIRF is unable to pay the claim."

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Kommer said she is grateful she had the resources to withstand the setback, and she said operations at the agency have been fully restored.

She also noted she is thankful for the support of friends and co-workers, as well as Fargo firefighters who helped following the incident.

In addition, Kommer said she appreciated the fact that Mayor Tim Mahoney came by the business "and tried to help, whatever that may mean."

Kommer acknowledged she didn't always use her best manners when dealing with NDIRF, but she said she doesn't want to see anyone else treated the way she was.

"I do think there should be some reform. I think (the North Dakota) insurance department should have more oversight over NDIRF," Kommer said, adding she would like to see North Dakota establish a fund that could offer low-interest loans to businesses that experience something similar to what she went through, noting she's not sure there is insurance coverage available for what she was hit with.

"They've already said 'no' to the insurance, so give me a low-interest loan," Kommer said, adding that the ordeal was the worst welcome-to-North Dakota gift imaginable.

In looking for silver linings, Kommer said there are some, even with the loss of her new elevator.

"I have to take the stairs, so I get more steps," she said.

I'm a reporter and a photographer and sometimes I create videos to go with my stories.

I graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and in my time with The Forum I have covered a number of beats, from cops and courts to business and education.

I've also written about UFOs, ghosts, dinosaur bones and the planet Pluto.

You may reach me by phone at 701-241-5555, or by email at dolson@forumcomm.com.
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