Gustafson estimates cost at $100,000.

    A fairly straightforward progression of steps involving the Downtown Square was endorsed by the Crookston City Council's Ways & Means Committee this week.

    First, for $2,300, a geotechnical report will be compiled that will indicate whether or not the structure square proponents are planning to build on the demolition site of Central High School can be constructed. Assuming the report gives the go-ahead to develop the site, the structure designed by Robert Gustafson and chosen by the committee when they were recently presented with three options would then be subjected to a structural engineering process to make sure the specifications and materials are good to go.

    At that point, it could be make-or-break time. The plans will then go out for bids, and everyone will be crossing their fingers in the hope that, as Gustafson has previously indicated, the bids will come in below, at, or, worst case, ever-so-slightly above the $100,000 estimated cost Gustafson previously arrived at.

    The council previously set aside a special fund with a balance of $150,000, the bulk of which is to be spent to build the structure and get the Downtown Square officially up and running. The rest is to be spent developing the corner of Second Street and Main, where the Palace/Wayne Hotel building was demolished, with maybe a little left over for housing rehab.

    It's critical that the bids come in favorably, council members agree. If they come in significantly over the $100,000 estimate, it's likely the council will have to revisit the three options they were previously presented with and choose a less elaborate and, therefore, less expensive option. The $100,000 option, with a rustic, barn-like look, security/storage features and a driveway for vehicles to enter and exit, was the most elaborate of the trio Gustafson came up with.

    At Large Council Member Wayne Melbye, who's been leading the Downtown Square project, said he's growing weary of debating the same issues with his colleagues on the council, and said it's time to get the geotechnical report done and, if that goes well, move onto the engineering and bid process.

    "We've hashed through all of this over and over," he said. "Do you want something that's kind of neat for the whole community or don't you?"

    Melbye was for the most part speaking to Ward 6 Council Member Tom Vedbraaten, who continues to express concerns about the cost, and is fairly convinced that even if the bids come in close to $100,000, when the building is actually constructed, it will end up costing significantly more. Plus, he added, most of the people in the community he's talked to about the Downtown Square think it's "crazy" for the city to spend that kind of a money on a building.

    "Well, I think you're talking to a different circle of people than I am," Melbye said. "The retailers, the farmers' market, the Crookston InMotion folks, Joe Blow down the street...we've tried to cover all the bases and we're getting a pretty positive response to it."

    Ward 1 Council Member Tom Jorgens, involved in the Crookston InMotion process as well as the Downtown Redeveopment Task Force that met several times last year, said returning some excitement and activity downtown has been identified as a top priority. "The notion of revitalizing downtown clearly involves a gathering place for people to come and do things," Jorgens said. "And there are spin-off benefits when that happens. It's not perfect, but on the other side of the coin maybe the benefits outweigh the problems."

Lease, don't own
    For some council members and city officials, one of those "problems" is the fact that the city doesn't own the land. The city has eight years left on an initial 10-year lease on the land, with a favorable option in the lease agreement language to extend the lease by another 10 years when the first one expires. The city also has the right to match any offer if another party seeks to buy the land.

    The city would like to buy the land, and City Administrator Tony Chladek and CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth last week met with the owner – who also owns the adjacent Central Square Apartments. The meeting went well, Chladek told the committee this week, but that actually purchasing the land at this point appears to be an "uphill battle" and a "long-term discussion." Hoiseth hinted that more meetings and negotiations may be forthcoming.

    No one argues that the lease is a good one for the city, with an annual payment of only $750. If the $100,000 building is constructed, the property taxes on the land would increase by approximately $1,500, but council members at this point aren't raising any major red flags about paying that annually, either, in return for a bustling Downtown Square. The landowner, Chladek and Hoiseth said, has no plans to object to the city's development plans for the site.

    Vedbraaten said he remains concerned about leasing the land and not owning it, and he's also concerned about who will keep the site clean and maintained. Melbye reiterated that once the initial structure is constructed and the Crookston Farmers' Market uses it twice a week and the Chamber of Commerce uses it for weekly block parties, "community buy-in" will commence. Various service clubs are waiting to put their stamp on the square, too, he said, but none of that is going to happen until the big first step is taken. "I think what happens is we do the mainstay thing, the big thing, and after that, you'll see big clubs, smaller clubs and the community jump on this," Melbye said.

    "I'm not going to talk about it anymore, if it's not going to be there," he continued. "Why should I drag Robert in here again to do more of the awesome things that he's come up with if you can't decide if you're going to do it?"

    "It's not that I'm against it," Vedbraaten responded. "I understand your idea and why we're looking at this."    

    Although the farmers' market, Chamber and other primary square users would likely be expected to clean up after themselves, council members and officials appear to be leaning toward some type of fee structure when various groups utilize the square. Whether it's a club doing a function, some type of performance or arts event, or simply a wedding, Mayor Dave Genereux said he believes some type of fee structure is warranted.

    Parks & Recreation Director Scott Riopelle said something could pretty easily be worked up.