A lot has changed in Brainerd in the last 70 years, with businesses coming and going, the tourism trade expanding and a multitude of other advancements and developments that come with time.
The downtown area has seen its share of alterations as well, from new restaurants, stores, and event spaces, to rental properties popping up and vast array of other establishments setting up shop -- or heading out of town.
The corner of South Fifth and Laurel streets is no different, previously housing the Greyhound Bus Depot from 1945 to the 1970s, according to the Crow Wing County Historical Society. The unique rounded building classified as art deco was the only one of its kind in the city.
Though buses stopped arriving at the depot more than 40 years ago, the building still stands today, playing host for the last several decades to Brainerd Eyecare Center, a business with its own long-standing history in the downtown area.
Offering everything from infancy exams to care for senior citizens, contact lenses, glasses and everything in between, Brainerd Eyecare Center opened 70 years ago in the hands of Dr. Eugene Sundberg in an upstairs office elsewhere downtown.The sole doctor in the place, Sundberg later moved his practice to what is now the Arcadia building near the Last Turn Saloon on South Eighth Street before the business found its final home in the old bus depot, where it still sits.
Sundberg retired in the early ‘90s, shortly before Dr. Steve Monda, the practice’s current owner, came on board in 1990. This year marks 30 years for Monda as an optometrist and 30 years serving his hometown.
As a 1982 Brainerd High School Graduate, Monda enjoys being able to work, not only in Brainerd, but downtown, the heart of the city. And thanks to an addition and remodeling work done a few years ago, Monda is confident his business will be able to stay right where it is long term.
The construction project touched up the exterior of the building and added 2,500 square feet, creating more space for a growing business.
“We had to change the outside of the building a little bit just to make it more energy efficient, but we tried to keep the same architecture with the rounded windows this building has had since it was built,” Monda said Tuesday, Jan. 14, while sitting in an exam chair at his practice. “So we tried our best, and we were nervous about the build-out at first because we were afraid of how people were going to interpret what we were going to do, but we’ve had only the best of comments from people that were impressed with how we did it.”
Old pictures of the building’s former life as a bus depot, along with other antiquated pictures of downtown Brainerd, including one with a horse and buggy parked outside city hall, hang on the eye care center’s walls in an effort to keep that history alive amongst the building’s remodel.
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"One of the things that Dr. Sundberg always said was, 'The best of technology, the best of equipment.' So every year we invest in higher tech equipment or newer stuff that’s out there that allows us to provide better care." - Dr. Steve Monda
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“This building’s got a new lease on life in downtown,” Monda said. “ It’s my hometown, and it just felt like the right thing to do.”
While the business’s outer look has changed dramatically over the last seven decades, with various location changes and remodel projects, so too have the contents inside.
“One of the things that Dr. Sundberg always said was, ‘The best of technology, the best of equipment,’” Monda said. “So every year we invest in higher tech equipment or newer stuff that’s out there that allows us to provide better care.”
Eye care technology is constantly changing, he said, and is by far the biggest change he’s seen throughout his 30 years in the business.
“There are tools now that we can detect diseases even before we physically can actually see it in a person’s eye, in particular macular degeneration, early glaucoma, things like that,” Monda said. “So we’re able to get that and put a stop to it or get the right treatment for it before it becomes a severe issue that you can’t reverse.”
The care of diabetes is another big change Monda credits to the advancements of public health education.
“There used to be a lot of sick eyes here when I started 30 years ago, eyes that we couldn’t do anything with anymore,” he said. “And with the education process now, getting the right A1C and the blood sugars down, I rarely see those super sick eyes anymore.”
That technological growth helps Monda and his team provide the best care possible for their patients, which was Sundberg’s goal from the start and continues to be Monda’s mission going forward. He also deems it as the secret to running a successful business with such longevity.
“Patients first,” Monda said. “All the decisions you make need to be in the patients’ best interest, not your own. And our whole staff believes it.”
That staff is another factor Monda credits with Brainerd Eyecare Center’s decades of success.
“I’ll say one thing for sure, and this is first and foremost, our staff,” he said. “My staff is second to none. It’s like a big family. We have a lot of fun. We work hard, but we have fun with each other and we always bend over backwards to help each other out.”
That staff includes Monda and four other optometrists — Josh Hanske, Ali Archibald, Taylor Swanson and Michael Monda — along with 14 other employees, which include three billing staff, a file clerk, two front desk receptionists, three opticians, two medical coders and an office manager.
Monda’s son, Michael, joined the practice as an optometrist last summer.
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"I got a pair of glasses in the seventh grade because I couldn't see the chemistry chart on the wall. I walked out of the doctor's office, and I couldn't believe the difference in my life. It was like, trees actually had leaves. It wasn't just a green blob and a brown stick. And so, from that point on, seventh grade, I knew this is what I would do one day." - Dr. Steve Monda
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Thirty years after becoming an eye doctor, Monda still loves his work and still remembers what drew him to optometry in the first place.
“I got a pair of glasses in the seventh grade because I couldn’t see the chemistry chart on the wall,” he said. “I walked out of the doctor’s office, and I couldn’t believe the difference in my life. It was like, trees actually had leaves. It wasn’t just a green blob and a brown stick. And so, from that point on, seventh grade, I knew this is what I would do one day.”
And it’s a profession that still has the doctor excited about coming to work each day, especially because of the love he has for his patients.
“After 30 years, you see these people and you get to know them. You know their parents, you know their kids, you know their grandkids now. So you know them and they’re more like friends, and you can run into them in the street and you recognize each other,” he said, noting losing his patients will be the hardest element to endure when he ultimately decides to retire down the road.
Though located in Brainerd, Monda and his staff extend their top-notch services to those in more rural parts of the lakes area as well through a satellite clinic at Mille Lacs Health System in Onamia.
The service is certified high quality according to area residents, who voted Brainerd Eyecare Center the No. 1 Best Eye Clinic in the Brainerd Dispatch's 2019 Best of the Brainerd Lakes contest.
Every Tuesday, a couple of Monda's staff bring their services to Onamia for the more rural residents in that area.
“We offer the same care there that we do here. So sometimes they’ll have to come over here if there’s special tests where the machines are portable, but it’s a neat system over there,” Monda said. “They built this beautiful hospital, and the thought was, let’s bring all the people that provide care from surgeons to psychologists to whatever — to optometrists — let’s bring them to town here so our townspeople just have to come to the hospital.”
And to better serve its more local customers, Brainerd Eyecare Center extends its hours to 7 p.m. Tuesdays and is open 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays, for those who might not be able to come in during the work week, further committing to Monda’s “patients first” motto.