Wilkens says Stassen didn’t alert the council; Stassen says he did, but Masons’ offer was lower than Evers’
Lester Wilkens, master of the Crookston Masonic Lodge, told the Crookston City Council at the beginning of their meeting Monday evening that the Masonic Lodge was interested in purchasing the lot between their building and the Fournet Building to the east that the council sold to Fournet owner Jeff Evers two weeks ago. But, Wilkens contended, despite repeated attempts to indicate that interest to City Administrator Shannon Stassen, Stassen never passed that information onto the council.
On Nov. 13, the council’s Ways and Means Committee held a meeting closed to the public and media – allowed by statute when a property sale or purchase is being discussed – at which the parameters of the sale of the lot to Evers were discussed. At the council meeting that followed later that evening, the council unanimously approved the sale without discussion.
Reading from a statement he’d prepared, Wilkens said Monday that Stassen notified him a couple hours before the Nov. 13 closed session that the council would be meeting in order to sell the lot to Evers. Evers had been in discussions off and on with the City for a couple months regarding the lot and whether he’d purchase it from the City or lease it with the idea of possibly purchasing it later. Evers, a developer who’s looking to renovate the Fournet and, as part of the first phase, would have Tri-Valley Opportunity Council as his second floor tenant, had told the council previously that if he had control of the small parcel to the west of the Fournet, he’d be able to bring a trailer in and keep demolition material there instead of potentially having it collect and be hauled away on the east (front) side of the building.
When the council held its annual meeting at the University of Minnesota Crookston earlier this fall and the possible sale of the lot to Evers was discussed, council members Tom Vedbraaten and Steve Erickson wondered if it would be better to put the lot up for bids or otherwise consider other potential offers. As Wilkens confronted Stassen and the council on Monday, both council members said it was the exact situation they were hoping to avoid when they spoke at the previous council meeting at UMC.
“I said before it should have been put to bids,” Erickson said. “This is exactly why I said that.”
During Monday’s exchange with Wilkens, Stassen said he believed there was a recording of the discussion at the Nov. 13 closed session, and in that discussion Stassen said he told the council had the Masonic Lodge had made an offer on the lot, but it was less than Evers’ offer.
“I said we’d go to $1,000; $500 was the first offer,” Wilkens replied.
“You said $500,” Stassen responded.
Reading from his statement earlier in Monday’s exchange, Wilkens said that while continuing to reiterate to Stassen the Masons’ interest in buying the lot, he also suggested that it would be preferable if Evers leased the lot from the City so the City would have more recourse if the lot became messy. If it was not cleaned up in a timely fashion, the City could potentially fine Evers by adding an assessment to his property taxes.
Asked by Mayor Wayne Melbye what the Masonic Lodge had in mind for the lot had it been able to buy it, Wilkens said the lodge was looking to put on picnics and other events for children and families. When Wilkens mentioned that he is a “strong Mason” and Melbye is a “strong (member of the Crookston Eagles)” and that things like the sale of the lot shouldn’t be conducted behind closed doors, Melbye told Wilkens he was “out of line.”
The mayor indicated that before Stassen became city administrator, a previous council - on which Melbye was a member - expressed an interest in the City ridding itself of various under-utilized green spaces it owns in the community. “That space was offered to the Masons back then and they wanted nothing to do with it, you had no plans for it,” Melbye said.
“We asked (about the lot) three times recently, not years ago,” Wilkens responded.
Melbye then indicated that the sale of the lot to Evers involved an economic development project, and economic development takes precedence in instances like this. The mayor then sought out CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth, seated in the audience, for further explanation, and Hoiseth said, “It’s the will of the council.” Hoiseth added, “You can set all of the priorities you like for development work, absolutely.”
In his statement, Wilkens indicated that he would not directly say that Stassen did not tell the truth. But, Wilkens contended, Stassen told only his version of the truth, or “in other words, he extended the truth to fit his needs or story.” Wilkens said the whole thing “stinks of a good old boys arrangement, or, if you have a buddy in the city hall, anything is possible.” He asked the council which is worse, “the one doing it, or the ones that allow it to happen?”
Tuesday, the Times emailed Stassen, asking if he’d be revisiting the audio recording of the Nov. 13 closed session to further corroborate his comments made in response to Wilkens on Monday. The Times also asked if any other response and/or actions would be commencing on the subject of the lot, or if he considered the matter resolved. The Times had not heard back at press time Tuesday.