Times Editorial - Are we happy with status quo downtown?

Mike Christopherson
Crookston Times

    You have to be of a certain age to remember Lee Iacocca. An icon in the auto industry who led the development of the Ford Mustang, he took over as CEO of Chrysler Corporation in the 1980s when the company was about to go under. With him at the helm, Chrysler bought American Motors Corporation and the Jeep brand, and the company flourished. Along the way, Iacocca became the face of the company and one of the most recognizable CEOs in the United States. The Chrysler slogan under his leadership was “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

    It seems appropriate to mention those words in this space today, and then alter them a bit when discussing where Crookston has been, where it stands now, and where it will be in the future. Is the status quo even possible? Or is our only choice as a community to venture boldly ahead, otherwise we risk our town’s regression?

    Crookston is not a tiny town, where you’re just happy to exist and keep on keeping on. But it’s not a big enough city where new development is almost a constant and is driven by its own energy, with hardly any government involvement or support necessary. If Crookston is going to grow and in the process avoid stagnation, our local government and its leaders and decision-makers are going to have to be involved, significantly.

    Which brings us to Dakota Commercial and Community Contractors and JLG Architects, Grand Forks companies who work together a lot, have a positive history in Crookston, and want to put a 39-unit apartment building with underground parking and a first floor space for business on the site where the former Crookston American Legion building sits. The development also includes a relocated Town Square and would take up the City-owned parking lots to the south of the Legion site.

    Dakota Commercial has spent around $25,000 so far to determine if it’s a doable development, and they’ve determined that it is. There are many things that need to get done, such as buying the Legion property, and the big one, securing a tax-increment-financing district, similar to what Jeff Evers has at his Fournet building development project.

    The Crookston Housing & Economic Development Authority has been working with the developers for quite some time and there’s not much more CHEDA can do. If this project is going to advance, the Crookston City Council is going to have to endorse it, and then help do what’s necessary to make it happen. It’s going to cost the City money, yes, but the developers are putting in millions more than the City would have to. And make no mistake: Even with the pandemic and the financial difficulties that have come with it, the City of Crookston is in rock-solid financial shape and has barely a penny of debt to service.

    But no city in Minnesota is more dependent on Local Government Aid than Crookston, which will receive almost $4 million next year. The reliance on LGA is scary, because the program is a political football that’s tossed about every session in St. Paul. Therefore, we as a community have to be bold as we try to secure our own successful future by growing our tax base and local economy.

    There are critics of this downtown project who for the most part bring up three primary concerns:

    • They’d rather see an empty building redeveloped, rather than new construction: Hey, that’s great. Do you know any developers besides Evers that have the money and enthusiasm necessary to redevelop an old building? 

    • They’re concerned about losing the two parking lots: Drive by those lots a few times and count how many vehicles are routinely parked there. Experts have said if you design your downtown with parking as your top priority, you’re going to end up with a disappointing downtown.

    • They don’t think Crookston is affluent enough to afford market-rate apartments: People said that when The Meadows was being built in the northeast corner, and that filled up. The massive housing study from a few years ago that was updated a couple years ago indicates Crookston needs these housing options. Are you going to disregard a study that you paid thousands of dollars to have done?

    And let’s not forget the Downtown Master Plan includes a development like this. This development would bring more people downtown, and once they live there, they would want more things to do and more things to spend their money on, downtown.

    More is good. Unless it’s more of the status quo.