Housing a popular topic as opportunities to invest, leverage money are discussed

    Leading a discussion of the CHEDA board of directors Thursday regarding how best to spend an additional $200,000 the Crookston City Council is looking to earmark in 2014 to the local housing and economic development authority, CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth said two key words, "investment" and "leverage" should drive the decisions made about the money.   

    "We're taking this money with an attitude of we're trying to invest it in the community," he said in the Valley Technology Park conference room. "But there's also leverage: Is there a way we could take this $200,000 and add to it, multiply it."   

    The City of Crookston is due a bump of around $450,000 in Local Government Aid in 2014, and another, similarly sized bump is possible in 2015. Knowing the importance of showing the powers-that-be at the Capitol in St. Paul that the money is needed and can be put to valuable use, council members and city officials know that simply sitting on the money isn't the best path to take. So the council recently agreed to allocate $200,000 of the $450,000 to CHEDA to keep the momentum going on local economic development and housing efforts. The rest of the money is being put toward a long list of needed capital investment, improvement and repair projects throughout the city's operation.   

    Ward 1 Council Member Tom Jorgens, who's been one of the most vocal proponents of investing more city dollars in CHEDA, agreed with the need to invest and leverage the money. "We've got some pretty good momentum going now and we need to keep it going and expand it so we can get some growth both in population and in jobs," he said. "Those two things go hand-in-hand. That's what we're trying to achieve and this has always been advertised as an investment, something that makes our community move forward."

Housing possibilities   

    Should the money go toward housing efforts? A local housing rehabilitation program, especially with two major neighborhoods soon to officially be removed from the 100-year flood plain, continues to be a popular topic, as does continuing with efforts to add housing options downtown. Maybe a downtown building owner wants to improve the upstairs apartments, Mayor Dave Genereux said, or maybe the owner of a home formerly in the flood plain wants to do an improvement project.   

    "Maybe we give a five-year no interest loan or, if it's a smaller project, maybe we give a $2,500 grant," Genereux said. "The nice thing about a loan is that it comes back and maybe we could use it as a pool to keep on using on similar projects."   

    Hoiseth said small allotments of money for various projects could serve as a critical financing bridge if bank financing isn't a particularly good fit.   

    Lee Meier, of the NW Minn. Multi-County Housing and Redevelopment Authority in Mentor, said the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund could be an especially valuable partner that could help the city and/or CHEDA buy reasonably priced homes in need of some work and then sell the homes to at-risk buyers on a contract for deed basis. Citing successful ventures in Roseau, Meier said "it's a pool that keeps building up and people who for whatever reason couldn't get a loan, can own a home and get it fixed up."   

    Something like that might be great, Hoiseth said, as long as the city can stay out of the banking business. "Maybe some other entity could be the homebuyer and turn it around. I want to avoid adding on administrative layers or adding staff," he explained. "Are we creating a job or increasing property tax value for the community? That's one or both of the outcomes we want for the community."   

    Partnering with Homark, which builds model homes, continues to be a possibility. The home builder would like to build a "showcase" home to test the Crookston market, Hoiseth said, but the "Cadillac" of Homark homes would likely cost more than $200,000, he cautioned. In Crookston, the primary housing shortage is at a significantly lower price point, Hoiseth said, which is one of the reasons the home currently being built by high school construction trades students has a smaller footprint than previous homes.   

    "In Crookston, in the $140,000 to $180,000 price range right now, we have three homes for sale. Three," Hoiseth said. "We have lots of homes $190,000 and up. That's not the workforce housing price."   

    Whether it's a Homark home or some other type of affordable home, Craig Morgan said it's important to have new, reasonably priced homes available. "You an affordable new house, then that's an opportunity for families in your community to move up to that house, and that opens up another house for someone else maybe looking to move up," Morgan explained. "The communities around us, you see a big batch of new housing starts and you see a bigger attraction of people moving to those communities. It's affordable, but it's nice."   

    School District Superintendent Chris Bates recalled driving a new music teacher around town who was searching for a home for sale that meshed with his needs, wants and financial situation. "He couldn't find a house," Bates said.   

    Adding housing needs to be only part of the strategy, he continued. The people have to follow, and that means the Crookston community needs to properly market itself.   

    "You need to market wholesome; Crookston is a wholesome place," Bates said. "We have a university on the edge of town, which is unusual for most towns and gives this community a level of diversity that few can match,. Our downtown is struggling, but not enough to totally race through it without looking around," he said. "People come back when they want a good, safe place to raise their kids and they see Crookston as being that place. I see that angle as being ultimately marketable for us. It's our biggest asset."