Council discusses keys to community’s long-term viability

    Members of the Crookston City Council and Mayor Genereux have on two recent occasions sat down to combine some shorter-term budget discussions with longer-term strategic planning.    

    Much of the latter discussion is being driven by a "Strategic Action Plan 2015-17" put together by City Administrator Shannon Stassen. The 10-page document is comprised of 10 different "Strategic Initiatives" that, if achieved, the thinking is, will lead the Crookston community down a path toward long-term viability and success.   

    It's a wide-ranging discussion, for sure. To illustrate that fact, amid a council session this week that covered a couple of Strategic Initiatives that mostly had to do with maximizing collaborations with the University of Minnesota Crookston, Crookston School District as well as local businesses, the conversation meandered into various amenities available in the community, such as nice parks and trails and recreational facilities.   

    While having those types of things is nice, Ward 6 Council Member Tom Vedbraaten said it's going to take more essential, bread-and-butter types of opportunities to get people to come to Crookston.   

    "I came here long ago because of a job, not because of nice trails or a new arena," he said. "I would never have considered coming here because of trails or an arena and then just hoping I would find a job."   

    While acknowledging that Vedbraaten's point made perfect sense, Stassen said one of the challenges Crookston faces is people who work here but don't live here. The problem is especially glaring when one considers the percentage of UMC faculty and staff and CHS faculty and staff who work here but don't live here. Of those that don't call Crookston home, most live in Grand Forks.   

    "It's my contention that we have a lot of people who work here and don't live here," Stassen said. "We need to talk about what we can do to reduce that number."   

    When it comes to entertainment options, restaurants and things like that, Vedbraaten said, Crookston will never be able to compete with the likes of Grand Forks.   

    Ward 5 Council Member Dale Stainbrook, specifically referring to younger professionals, said it's about getting educated on what today's younger generation wants out of life. "Young professionals today, they don't think twice about a long commute, so what can we do to keep them here?" he said. "They want to work, they want to make money and they want to play. They want to come home from work and do what they want, go on adventures. They don't really want to mow the lawn, shovel snow, or even put a tomato plant on the deck. That's the group we're dealing with and we have to show them what we have to keep them here."   

    Stassen said the goal is not to try to mimic Grand Forks. "We're not shooting to be them because they have things on a level we never will," he said. "But there are some people in Grand Forks who are looking for something smaller, quieter, more natural and maybe just a little different."   

    Without boasting about Ox Cart Days at the expense of East Grand Forks' annual festival known as Heritage Days, Stassen said one of Crookston's strengths is its identity, sense of community, and it's ability to rally together to get things done. "I don't think you'd ever get the level of buy-in like we do with Ox Cart Days to put on a festival on that level," he said. "A lot of people in East Grand Forks, they feel like they're part of Grand Forks. With the geography, that’s going to be unavoidable."   

    So it sort of comes down to a pretty simple choice for people, Stassen added. "If they want 60,000 people than they're going to live over there," he said. "If they want a setting more in the 10,000 range, we're here for them. We have to accept who we are, but also embrace who we are."   

    One area that Crookston could get its foot in the door, Vedbraaten said, is housing. Prices are through the roof in Grand Forks, while by comparison they're downright affordable in Crookston.   

    "Along with a job, people want a nice house but at a decent price," he said. "They can hardly afford a lot in a bigger city, much less a house."   

    While it's important to accept Crookston's limitations compared to a bigger city like Grand Forks, Ward 2 Council Member Dana Johnson said that Crookston, especially since the construction of Crookston Sports Center, has shown that it can grow and offer more entertaining and dining options. "We can grow, we can open new businesses, we can offer more," she said.   

    True, Stassen said, "But most of what we do is going to be more in the specialty area. More than likely Target is not going to open here."   

    Trying to lure traditional retail might be a goal of the past anyway, Ward 1 Council Member Tom Jorgens added, citing research that shows up to 40 percent of retail transactions today are conducted online. "It's a different way of looking at the world," he said.    

    "Today's business model is becoming extinct," Ward 3 Council Member Gary Willhite added.   

    Mass production is giving way to "uniqueness and extreme customization," Stassen explained. "It's like buying the whole album in the old days and picking just the songs you want today on iTunes. You get only exactly what you want and it's open-sourced. You can find anything you want online. Anything."   

    So technology is the key? Well, it's at least a key on the keychain.   

    "We have a software engineering degree right here at UMC," Stassen said. "Wouldn't it be nice to tap into that resource and make something happen."   

    CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth said the economic development model of trying to lure some big manufacturer to a community is being seen more and more as an antiquated way of thinking. He cited the 100-acre "Coburn property" south of Ingersoll Avenue on Crookston's south end as an example. The city bought it a few years ago for the purposes of expanding the industrial park, and while Hoiseth said it likely will come in handy and be put to good use at some point in the future, nothing is imminent.   

    "We can sit on that property until we're blue in the face, because trying to lure a big smokestack is not the model communities are using anymore," Hoiseth said. "Right now that acreage is perfectly suited to produce sugar beets and grain, and that's just fine."   

    Big manufacturers are out-sourcing, Hoiseth said, and more people are working out of their homes. "We're not positioned properly to deal with that right now," he said. "We need to keep sufficient broadband at the center of any discussions about the future; you can't discount the critical importance of that.   

     "The wave of the future is a very mobile workforce," Hoiseth added. "It's happening now."