Everyone wants to see some building activity when the weather warms up.

    In order to avoid more meetings in the future at which the possibilities at Crookston's new Downtown Square would be discussed in vague fashion repeatedly, with no real details approved in order to move things forward, At Large Crookston City Council Member Wayne Melbye told the council's Ways & Means Committee this week that he wanted some direction.

    In other words, Melbye, who's been at the forefront of the Downtown Square planning process through his council role and the Crookston InMotion community stewardship initiative, wanted to know how much could be spent to get some structures built at the square, located where Crookston Central High School once stood.

    While he didn't leave Monday evening's meeting with exact figures, Melbye was given some clear direction to determine what structures are needed first, get some quotes from lumber yards for materials and have fellow Crookston InMotion steward and Downtown Square planner Robert Gustafson fine-tune his concept drawings for a first phase that proponents are hoping will starting taking shape as soon as the weather warms up.

    "This is the best discussion we've had on this," Melbye said. "We can't go backwards on this, and we can't be sitting here this summer wondering what we should do first."
Funding sources
    Asked if $50,000 would be enough to get the ball rolling, Melbye and his successor in Ward 4, new council member Hector Santellanes, agreed that $50,000 "won't go very far." Council member Bob Quanrud then wondered if $75,000 would be a "better start," and Melbye said that might be a good figure to start with as Downtown Square planners seek to get the community excited about the new downtown attraction and seek potential buy-in, in the form of volunteer labor/sweat equity, and donations from individuals, businesses, organizations and service clubs.

    The council previously, as part of a strategic prioritizing process, set aside $150,000 earmarked for the Downtown Square, improvements at the former Wayne Hotel site, and other, smaller projects. The Wayne Hotel site is a top priority as well, and no one wants to spend too much of the $150,000 on the Downtown Square at the expense of the site of the former historic hotel building.

    Which is why Melbye asked Finance Director Angel Hoeffner to provide a report to the council on the settlement the City of Crookston and the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad agreed to years ago when the railroad removed the bridge over the railroad tracks on 8th Street. The city initially received $300,000 as part of the settlement, with early visions of a new bridge over the tracks closer to the five-way stop on North Broadway. But when the price tag reached the seven figures, plans for a new bridge were abandoned.

    Eventually, the city and school district reached a deal where the city lent $300,000 to the school district so the tennis courts at Crookston High School could be built. The district has been making annual payments of $30,000 since 2006, Hoeffner said, and the current fund balance is $153,000, with the district on track to pay off the loan in 2016.

    It's a "restricted" fund, Hoeffner said, meaning that spending it on something requires council action.

    Melbye thinks the council should spend a big chunk of it on the Downtown Square. Once the bridge idea fell through, he said, the council said the money would be spent at some point on a "community project" that "benefitted everyone." If it's a "rainy day" fund, Melbye wonders if that rainy day is here, in the form of the Downtown Square. "Is this the project?" he said.

    Gustafson, who's already come up with drawings that feature various levels of ambition at the square, wants to get together again in order to get more details on what the first phase and, potentially, following phases could and should entail. Ward 4 Council Member Tom Jorgens has said he envisions a three-phase process that extends over five years.

    Whether it comes from the $150,000 the city has set aside or the railroad settlement money, Ward 3 Council Member Keith Mykleseth said he's not opposed to spending the necessary funds to get the Downtown Square off and running. But he doesn't want to "jump in full steam" when the city is still only leasing the land, and he's concerned about potential Local Government Aid reductions in the future and how they'll impact the city's bottom line.

    "I agree this project is a priority," Mykleseth said. But, he added, the council had to take some money from reserves to balance the budget last year. "I just don't want to over-extend ourselves," he said. "Let's get started on the square, absolutely, but let's leave some things to add later."

    Melbye envisions a first phase that potentially features a shelter of some sort, a "primitive" band shell and maybe a stage. "We're not going to build four different types of gazebos down there," he said. The shelter would give the square's primary tenant, the Crookston Farmers' Market, a stable, quality location once the market kicks off another year in June, he said.

    The Chamber of Commerce has also purchased the large, white tent from the University of Minnesota, Crookston that could be a valuable shelter for various events at the square, Santellanes added. "It's important for the city to be in front on this, and then you can get the service clubs and others who want to be part of it to line up behind you," he said.

    "Then we need to get the community fired up," Melbye said. "I think you'll see some of the little guys, maybe they want to buy some benches or something. The big guys, maybe they'll want to buy a whole wing. That would be nice."