Site is the former American Legion building and two City-owned parking lots to the south.

Although the last thing on anyone’s mind these days involves large groups of people congregating in a shared space, in a post-COVID-19 pandemic world, local leaders continue to explore the possibility of transforming the property home to the former Crookston American Legion building and adjacent parking lot spaces into a mixed-use building and relocated town square.

And if the Crookston City Council approves it and the financing can be lined up, despite the pandemic bringing so many things to a grinding halt, the hope would still be to get started on the project this summer.

As far as the mixed-use building itself goes, if you’re looking for something to at least vaguely compare it to, think of the “Selkirk on 4th” development in downtown Grand Forks that has retail spaces at street level and living spaces upstairs that were initially designed to be sold as lofts, but may have a percentage of rental tenants in the future. On the Minnesota side of the river, in downtown East Grand Forks, another potential comparable is the building home to Up North Pizza at street level and apartments on the upper floors. Elsewhere in downtown Grand Forks, a similar development is underway that will be anchored by a Hugo’s grocery store downtown at street level, with living spaces on the upper floors.

Those developments don’t include a great deal of outdoor town square-like amenities, but a major component of the plan being envisioned at the American Legion site is a town square space for various events, activities and gatherings. The current town square is located a couple blocks to the north on the former Crookston Central High School site, where the red barn/pavilion currently sits. One of the drawbacks of that site that never seems to be too far in the background when the future of the property is discussed is the fact that the City of Crookston does not own the land and instead leases it from Resource Management, which also owns the newest portion of the former high school, home to a vacant gymnasium and some street-level apartments.

Doing something big with the American Legion property, which is for sale, and the City-owned parking lots to the south of the Legion has been talked about for some time, but with a potential land sale and price being primary topics of conversation, statute has allowed for the meetings to be closed to the public and media. CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth tells the Times that the message he received from his board and several city council members who serve on that board was clear: To pursue such a development “as it would create something very appealing” for Crookston.

The potential project was discussed at this week’s CHEDA Board meeting, mostly because the day before the meeting board members and any other council members who wanted to go along were scheduled to take a Tri-Valley bus ride to Grand Forks to tour the Selkirk on 4th development. But with everything going on with COVID-19 and social distancing, the trip and tour were postponed.

 

Who’s involved, what the project would entail

Dakota Commercial and Community Contractors, the latter of which constructed Agassiz Townhomes on Crookston’s north end in addition to the three newest student residence halls at the University of Minnesota Crookston, have been involved in the Grand Forks and East Grand Forks projects that would be somewhat similar to a Crookston project. Hoiseth says they are both first-class developers who do projects on-time and on-budget, and, he adds, he’s developed strong relationships with both Craig Tweten, owner of of Community Contractors, and Kevin Ritterman, owner of Dakota Commercial.

The developers have also engaged with JLG Architects, which led the effort to create Crookston’s downtown master plan a couple years ago. Hoiseth said he’s asked Tweten and Ritterman to engage Widseth Smith Nolting & Associates to further enhance JLG’s efforts to “create as much local dynamics and collaboration as possible,” and they have done so.

The project would involve the demolition of the Legion building. Its parking lot, along with the City-owned parking lots to the south, would be removed as well – as of now the Crookston project design incorporates indoor parking. The Legion site would become a new downtown square with a stage and other amenities. The multi-use building would be constructed on the City parking lots and the apartments above would have nice views of the square and Red Lake River, Hoiseth explained.

“We’re looking at approximately 40 units of housing, and another 8,000 square feet of indoor community center space for the city, and in the lots next door there would be the outdoor community space, which could be used in so many ways that the community would enjoy,” Tweten tells the Times. “The grandstand could have shows and performances, you could have art shows, the farmers’ market, flea markets, ice skating in the winter. It’s just a great location right along Highway 2 that would be highly visible.”

Hoiseth and his wife toured the Selkirk on 4th development in January, and he said they came away very impressed, with him more excited about the possibility of doing a project in downtown Crookston.

That’s why he’s especially eager to get CHEDA Board members and city council members to Grand Forks to see it for themselves.

After such a visit and tour, the plan would be for Dakota Commercial and Community Contractors representatives to present some drawings and cost estimates to members of the CHEDA Board and city council.

 

A ‘heavy lift’

CHEDA Board Member Tom Vedbraaten, also a city council member, says he doubts anyone would be opposed to such an exciting project in downtown Crookston, but the price tag will no doubt scare plenty of people off.

Hoiseth didn’t deny that such a project is expensive. For the Up North Pizza/apartment development, he said the City of East Grand Forks “wrote a check” for $750,000.

“Cash is required to get this kind of project done,” he said, “and we certainly know that downtown projects like this are a heavy lift. But it’s a really nice development, and if you see it on paper, that really comes through.”

Tweten realizes such a development doesn’t get done for pennies, but he said he’s not anticipating a great deal of sticker shock among decision-makers when the project is formally presented to them.

“We’ve worked this very hard and we continue to do so, with great partners, like JLG, which is already so familiar with downtown Crookston,” Tweten said. “We continue to really work the numbers to get the best design, the best value and the best price. We have a contract on the (parking lots) for a good price. We have bids on demolition of the building and concrete, with a local contractor coming in with very good pricing. We’ve kept the best possible budget in mind throughout this whole process.”

Tweten said he knows it will come down to a council vote, up or down.

“We know there’s no thumbs-up yet,” he said. “Craig (Hoiseth) has said to keep working on the project and eventually it’ll be up to the council on what they decide to do. …We have a really good team working on this, and we think it could be a major asset for the Crookston community.”