Finch, city council agree: City needs to be more inviting, less intimidating

From lighting to paint colors and beyond, consensus is that the City needs to be more welcoming to its residents

Mike Christopherson

What was likely envisioned to be a wide-ranging, big-picture topic of discussion at a Crookston City Council strategic planning discussion this week – the City’s image – got mighty specific in a hurry, and when council members and City Administrator Amy Finch wrapped up that discussion and moved onto the next agenda item, the feeling in the air is that the City needs to be more welcoming and inviting to its residents.

    That might not sound specific at all; in fact, it might sound overly vague and, therefore, difficult to remedy in a realistic, impactful manner.

    But when you consider that Finch and council members spent much of their half-hour conversation talking about city hall and the council chambers themselves being not just uninviting but even intimidating to the public, things got specific. Paint colors need to be brighter and lights should be more illuminating and microphone audio needs to be louder, council members and Finch agreed. Even the intrusive, floor-to-ceiling, dark brown-colored pillars in the basement-level chambers that prevent people from seeing other are a major point of contention for Finch, who started as city administrator last fall.

    “I despise these brown pillars,” she said. “…If they’re holding the building up then I suppose we have to leave them, but they at least need to be a brighter color.”

    Mayor Dale Stainbrook said he’s not a big fan of the rustic, dark-stained wooden apparatus at the head of the chambers, where he sits along with members of the council.

    “It looks like the supreme court in here,” the mayor said.

    Finch said it’s all about being “thoughtful and purposeful in how we arrange ourselves, our rooms and our desks as people are coming in.”

    Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson said that council members always need to remember that they’re elected by the citizens of Crookston, and because of that, citizens should feel not just positive and confident but proud when they come to city hall and into the chambers, whether it’s simply to observe a meeting or if they have something to say.

    “But I feel like it’s the opposite vibe when they come in here,” he added.

    Although he wouldn’t have anything to do with changing paint colors, Finch said she’s consulting with new City Information Technology Director Chad Palm on ways technology, whether it’s improved audio or the livestreamed meetings on the way, can make city hall and the council chambers and the City operation as a whole more welcoming for Crookston residents.

    City Attorney Charles “Corky” Reynolds recalled being on the design team that consulted with architects and engineers during the process of constructing Crookston High School. “They said we needed to make the entryway the best we possibly could because 95% of the people will come here once and that’s how they will think of Crookston High School,” he noted, adding that, of the council chambers, he’s heard people say they’re not about to “come into that dungeon.”

    “They can’t hear and they can’t see people,” Reynolds said, later adding, “You can’t put a value on people’s perceptions. You can just never measure that first impression and feeling welcome. I’m not talking about giving people a hug, but people just feeling comfortable. You want people to (enter the chambers) and say ‘That’s my city council,’ not ‘I’m in jail.’”

    City hall’s main floor isn’t much better, Finch and council members agreed. The lighting, like the chambers, is mostly glum, and offices and departments aren’t labeled well. Finch said when she first arrived, she wasn’t even sure where to go.

    There’s an elevator in the entryway for people who are unable to or don’t want to navigate the stairs, but how many people know that? First-term Ward 5 Council Member Joe Kresl, during the discussion about the lack of a welcoming atmosphere, said it goes beyond not being welcoming; the chambers aren’t even ADA-compliant, he added. Alerted to the existence of the elevator, Kresl said he had no idea city hall had an elevator, to which fellow first-termer Kristie Jerde, representing Ward 1, mentioned that she was glad she wasn’t the only council member who didn’t know city hall has an elevator.

    But it goes beyond “how things look,” Finch stressed. It’s also about “How are we helping people?” she said, adding that she’s observed citizens come in the rear entrance of city hall and walk slowly and sheepishly toward the lobby, as if they’re not just unsure about where to go, but that maybe they are someplace they’re not supposed to be.

    “Are there things we could do better as far as our behavior?” Finch wondered.

    At Large Council Member Wayne Melbye, who returned to the council in November after a previous stint in which he served multiple terms as a council member and then mayor, said that over the years if he knew people were coming to a council meeting to speak on a particular matter, he’d make a point to approach them and greet them before the meeting was convened.

    “I’d try to give them the lowdown (on the structure of the meeting and the agenda process), but you can see the nerves,” Melbye said.

    Erickson said over the years he’s observed people attend various council meetings and then simply get up and leave afterward, even though, he said he’s suspected, they had attended in the first place because they wanted to speak to the council about something. But not knowing when and how to do so – there’s an open forum at the beginning of each meeting set aside for non-agenda topics and people are asked to walk to the podium and give their name and address for the record before they address the council – caused them to remain seated and leave later without speaking, Erickson said. “I know they were here for a reason,” he added.

    “It’s formal and it needs to be, but we need to make sure people feel comfortable and invited,” Finch responded.

    The city administrator also made a point to mention that Palm has commenced with tackling the City’s current website with the goal of making it more user-friendly, updated and interactive.

    “I’m excited about that,” Finch said. “It’s necessary. It’s how people seek information, it’s their first stop.”