Some council members seem to support idea of locating RV park somewhere besides Castle Park

    Some of the most pointed words directed at the Crookston City Council at a jam-packed public forum Thursday evening at city hall on the RV park proposed for Castle Park had to do with the notion that the council and city officials have already made up their minds to put the development in Castle Park, and are basically giving opponents of the proposal lip service and little more.   

    "The thing that bugs me the most is that all the homework you've done, you've done after the fact," Loren "Punky" Johnson said from the podium in the council chambers, which was filled by an overflow crowd of around 75 people. "You're just trying to make us feel better. I almost didn't come tonight because you've made up your minds. It makes it so frustrating because you don't seem to listen to anyone.    

    "It's not just Sampson's Addition, it's people all over town who think this is the stupidest thing they've ever heard," Johnson continued. "There's other spots all over town to consider, but you've come up with excuses for every one. I don't even know why we're here; it's all redundant. You're supposed to listen to us but you don't."   

   Johnson was one of the first opponents of disrupting Castle Park to speak at Thursday's forum, the second of its kind after one a couple weeks ago attracted around 10 people. By the time around 90 minutes had passed Thursday evening and many others had voiced their concerns, it appeared that the groundswell of passionate, vocal opposition to having a private developer put an RV park in a portion of a public park was swaying some views on the council.   

   For example:   

    • Ward 3 Council Member Gary Willhite, standing at the podium rather than speaking from his council member chair, said people seem to understand the city's desire to boost economic development in the community through a larger campground, whether it's for tourists, temporary American Crystal Sugar workers, or both. But it's clear, he said, that the proposed location is simply too much for a lot of people to stomach.   

    "Craig Hoiseth (the CHEDA executive director) is just doing his job by working with developers and businesses to try to improve our community, but I don't know if a residential park is the place for this," Willhite said. "Maybe at first this looked like the goose with the golden egg with someone else providing all these funds, but it does come with a cost."   

    Willhite said the council is considering the many aspects of the proposal carefully, and the list of potential rules, restrictions and covenants debated by council members earlier this week for the RV park is a sure sign of that. "But who's going to enforce the rules, like if someone brings in firewood and they're not supposed to?" he said. "Will the owner of the property do it? Will the community have to take responsibility for it? I think that taking one of our parks and using it for a place like this isn't the way to go."   

    As they did many times Thursday evening, the audience applauded enthusiastically.   

    • At Large Council Member Wayne Melbye said Hoiseth did a "hell of a job" by showing the developer, Jeremy Jennen of Hillsboro, N.D., the "cream of the crop" that is Castle Park. But, Melbye added, the council has heard the opposition loud and clear. "It's stay the hell out of our parks," he said. "What you guys want is to go with Plan B. I'm thinking that if we're smart, we look at Plan B."   

    • At Large Council Member Bob Quanrud said the council has no ill will and there's no vendetta involved with wanting to put the RV park in a portion of Castle Park. On the contrary, he said he "loves" the grassroots process that resulted in Thursday's packed council chambers. "Where I was the other day, I'm not there anymore," Quanrud said of his changing views on the proposal. "We're a community council. We hear you and we want to do the best. But maybe what we're thinking isn't the best."   

    • Mayor Dave Genereux said opponents of the plan are wrong to assume the council isn't listening to them and isn’t taking their concerns to heart. "We have not made up our minds on this issue," he said. "We are listening so we can move forward on this, or move to some other location."

FOIA request   

   Hoiseth, City Administrator Shannon Stassen and some council members have referred to a "matrix" that was created that listed the pros and cons of 10 other potential sites for an RV park. For the most part, Stassen explained, the reasons the other 10 sites fell by the wayside and Castle Park rose to the top included the lack of access to the river at the other potential locations, the high cost of extending utilities to them, and the fact that they aren't in a "natural" setting like Castle Park and, thus, won't attract the tourists that would populate the RV park for the two months that temporary ACS workers aren't there.   

    Shirley Iverson of the Castle Park Preservation Group previously asked that the council publicly release the "matrix," something that Hoiseth and Stassen have said they're hesitant to do because some of the sites are privately owned and they don't want to potentially paint them in a negative light. Ruling them out for an RV park isn't necessarily negative, Sampson's Addition resident Jane Sims countered Thursday, while requesting the public release of market research data and other relevant information regarding the city's pursuit of an RV park in Castle Park. When Iverson asked Stassen if he had the "matrix" with him Thursday, he said he did not. At that point, she submitted documentation requesting the public release of the matrix and other city communications on the subject, via the Freedom of Information Act.

    The city for years has wanted to relocate its primary city campground from Central Park, which is prone to flooding of the Red Lake River every spring. Dating back to when Aaron Parrish was city administrator, a new campground, targeted for Castle Park, has been listed among future priorities. For three  years the city has applied, without success, for a six-figure grant from the DNR Legacy Fund to put a city campground in Castle Park, further up the hill from the natural play space and dog park.   

    Enter Jennen, who owns and operates an RV park on the outskirts of Hillsboro, N.D., in partnership with American Crystal Sugar and Express Personnel, which helps the company find temporary workers during the fall harvest in September and October. Jennen has said up to $1 million would be invested to bring the RV park to Castle Park.   

    As his talks with the city have progressed and concerned citizens have provided input, Stassen said, the footprint of the proposed RV park has shrunk to the point that it takes up less of Castle Park – around 2.5 acres – than the city's initial campground design did. That's because around 3 acres of private land to be acquired from John Sampson is now part of the deal, Stassen said.   

    Thursday, Corey Kreutzberg from ACS detailed the "RV Program" that he oversees for the company. The low unemployment rate in the region, combined with a shrinking number of people who live in the Red RIver Valley who seek temporary work during the harvest, led to ACS launching its RV Program in 2007, he explained.    

    At its five factories, Kreutzberg said, ACS needs around 1,400 temporary workers during the harvest. In 2007, around 150 temporary workers in RVs were utilized in the valley. That initial number had more than doubled in the 2013 piling season, he said. "It's just terribly hard to staff our needs," Kreutzberg said, adding that he was hoping to "clear the air" on some misperceptions on the temporary workers who travel in their RVs. "We recruit specifically; these people travel from the south mostly. They're families, they're good people,” he said.   

    But it's not all great, he acknowledged. "Don't get me wrong, I'll admit we've had problems," Kreutzberg said. "You have people from different areas in one spot and there are issues you deal with. But we are here as a local business and we need to expand our RV Program. We rent spots all over the valley, and Crookston has been identified as being short on seasonal help and it's definitely a place we'd like to have an RV park with full hook-ups. We recruit people who come in here on coaches, who come to work. They're not here to raise hell. We have a lot of returners year after year and we've made good relationships. I hate to paint them with a broad negative brush."   

    Kreutzberg said ACS would like at least 30 RV slots available for their seasonal workers each fall. He said ACS has rented spots from Willie Nephew, owner of North Acres trailer court, an option that seemed to grow more popular with citizens in attendance as Thursday's forum wore on.   

    "I know this is very emotional for you; we're not here to promote Castle Park," Kreutzberg said. "If you decide to build an RV park we would like to rent spots in your RV park."   

    Sandra McNichol of the Castle Park Preservation Group was one of several to suggest the Nephews as a potential local partner to help meet Crystal's needs. "They're willing to expand to accommodate your workers," she told Kreutzberg. "They were shocked that an out-of-town developer was being courted by city leaders."   

    McNichol said the opponents of placing the park in Castle Park aren't anti-economic development or anti-tourism. They simply don't think public land should be gifted or sold to a private developer for a commercial development. "But somehow we're seen as whack-jobs, overly obsessive tree-huggers," she said. "Don't continue with this crazy location for a great idea that benefits tourism and a local business. I beseech you to be progressive and I beseech you to join with your friends and citizens to protect this beautiful place. Find another location where your economic development objectives can be reached without sacrificing this irreplaceable green space."   

    Although the design for the RV park in Castle Park has been modified of late to include the planting of numerous, substantial trees for a buffer zone/screening purposes, Dan Svedarsky, a biologist and head of UMC's Center for Sustainability said that some of the natural features in the Castle Park woods date back to the Lake Agassiz days, and there are oak trees in the wood as old as 250 years.    

    "I grew up in Castle Park and I know what a special area it is," Svedarsky said, adding that he also serves on the Convention & Visitors Bureau Board of Directors. "So I also know the value of bringing visitors here, and I've long felt Crookston was missing an opportunity to have an RV park somewhere because of the traffic you'd see," he explained. "But you can develop an RV park on just about any piece of land; put the trees wherever they need to be and maximize your layout. To me, in Castle Park, the really unique parts of the landscape exist because there has been a minimum of disturbance for centuries. You can build an RV park anywhere and at the same time preserve a gem with all of its natural features. You can accomplish both."   

    Leah Winjum, one of the leaders of the effort that's resulted in the still-growing natural play space in Castle Park, told the council that it would be sad to see the momentum and excitement building over the park's natural amenities and educational opportunities "come to a screeching halt" if the RV park is built there. "We can say we're going to put all these rules in place, but once the land is out of the city's hands, I think we'll only have so much control over it," Winjum said. "No economic gain is worth the risk you'd be subjecting our children to."   

    "I love when you talk about bringing people to the community and I love our town and I want it to grow. These are exciting times for Crookston for many reasons," Iverson added. "But I'm asking that Castle Park not be the location for this. This park is very different now than it was when you first thought about this years ago. A tremendous financial and emotional investment has been made in our public park. Don't destroy that, don't put that at risk."