Almost two hours of productive brainstorming end with disagreements over what’s transpired between city council and CHEDA since last fall

    CHEDA Board President Kurt Heldstab abruptly adjourned a CHEDA working session Tuesday evening at Valley Technology Park after a positive and productive discussion lasting just under two hours reverted to familiar disagreements between City Administrator Shannon Stassen and CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth.

    “I think I’m going to call this meeting,” Heldstab said in the full VTP conference room. “We don’t need to talk about this anymore, I’m sorry.”

    About 20 minutes before Heldstab adjourned the meeting, Lori Wagner, who attended the meeting because part of the agenda involved a discussion on future strategic positioning of VTP itself and the agency she leads, the United Way of Crookston, is a tenant, said Crookston’s leaders need to get along if the community is going to thrive. Stressing she was speaking as a "concerned rural Crookston resident" on not on behalf of the United Way, Wagner said everyone in the community is part of a chain, but if links in the chain are broken, Crookston "is going to go nowhere fast.” Specifically mentioning Stassen, Hoiseth and Mayor Guy Martin, Wagner said she feels like “we’re at an all-time low. I feel like we’re broken. If we have our key people not getting along, this is not going to work.”

    But the tone of the meeting didn't really turn until Tim Denney, who arrived about halfway through the brainstorming session, questioned the process that led the Crookston City Council to approve in late 2018 an allocation of an additional $350,000 in City funds to CHEDA. Taking issue with the “process” that began last fall and continued up to Tuesday’s CHEDA working session, Denney said if funds that were initially envisioned to be spent on certain things but are now likely to be spent on different things, taxpayers in the community need to have an opportunity to provide their input.

    “These are taxpayer dollars, so we need some transparency when money like this is going to be shoveled around,” Denney said.

    Last fall, the city council, led by Bob Quanrud, who has since retired from the council, started talking about the possibility of allocating additional funding to CHEDA in 2019. As the possibility gained more traction, Hoiseth was asked at a CHEDA Board meeting to provide a “wish list” of things he might invest CHEDA dollars in if he had more CHEDA dollars at his disposal. According to a Sept. 27 story in the Times, Hoiseth initially listed additional investments in the Colborn property on the south edge of town and property near Casey’s General Store, Oak Court roof and elevator improvements (it’s owned by CHEDA), information technology support, more housing rehab, and workforce development with Crookston High School and UMN Crookston, among other things.

    Eventually, in November, the council on a 6-2 vote approved an additional $350,000 for CHEDA in 2019, which would come from City reserves. By that time, Hoiseth had modified his wish list to include only bigger-picture, broader investment priorities because the council and then-Mayor Wayne Melbye had indicated a preference for some of the more smaller-scale items on Hoiseth’s list being removed. They wanted strategic investments of the $350,000 to directly impact local economic development, jobs, the workforce and/or housing. Prior to the full council vote in November, at council Ways & Means Committee meeting on Oct. 22, Hoiseth was asked to list his wish list items again, and noted closed-door discussions on property acquisitions that would require $300,000 to make happen. He also said he’d invest more money in CHEDA’s housing rehab program and grow workforce development initiatives. But during that discussion, Hoiseth was most adamant about opening a child care center in Crookston, noting that CHEDA would take on that challenge if given the opportunity.

    When the council on Nov. 13 approved the $350,000 allocation, proponents of the move noted that Hoiseth had removed some items from his initial wish list, including the Oak Court Apartments improvements and information technology upgrades, in favor of larger-scope investments.

    All along, Stassen, Finance Director Angel Weasner and council members concerned about the additional City allocation of dollars to CHEDA said that the previous practice of the City giving CHEDA additional dollars when the agency has requested funds for specific, worthy projects has worked well in the past. Opponents of the additional City funding of CHEDA also said the council should know more about how the money would be specifically spent before being asked to approve such a transfer of funds.

    At Tuesday’s session, Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee said the public/taxpayers have an opportunity to attend every council meeting and every CHEDA Board meeting, and every meeting has an open forum at which the public can address both entities. Hoiseth also noted the strong, consistent council member attendance at CHEDA Board meetings, including Tuesday’s working session. “I love that,” Hoiseth said. “The CHEDA Board won’t run a unilateral process away from the council.”

    Stassen said he continues to be against how things have transpired since discussions on additional City funding for CHEDA commenced last fall. He called it “misleading,” adding that the “process” of moving the funding to CHEDA and then letting CHEDA decide how to spend it is “Not the right way to go about things.” Stassen stressed that he thought Tuesday’s CHEDA working session “is a good start” toward CHEDA having a strategic plan for economic development, which he said has been a council desire since 2016. “But as far as the process of money being moved over, Angel was very clear and I was as well” that proper pretense wasn’t followed, Stassen stressed.

    “What was presented then is everything we just talked about tonight; these are things we could do if the council allocated some money,” Hoiseth responded. “We haven’t spent a dollar and we won’t spend a dollar until it’s approved. A City or CHEDA account, where (the $350,000) sits really is irrelevant.”

    “Like it or not,” Fee said, the council decided to give the $350,000 to CHEDA. “Shannon, I think you really need to get over that,” Fee added.

    Ward 4 Council Member Don Cavalier said people need to stop “blaming the past” and that Stassen and Hoiseth need to work together.

    “The money is transparent; we’re all working on the same initiatives and after the same things,” Hoiseth said. “We need to figure that out pretty quick. …We all want what’s best for Crookston, no more, no less.”

    The Times reached out to Hoiseth and Stassen after the meeting for additional clarification on their points of view. In response, Hoiseth said he was going to focus on the almost two hours of productive brainstorming Tuesday and not the back-and-forth comments at the end.

    “We had a fantastic meeting for two hours…tremendous input, great ideas, probing questions and genuine teamwork,” Hoiseth said. “Then we had six minutes at the end that unfortunately went towards the negative.”