Council orders plans and specifications for RV campground in Crookston's Central Park

Stainbrook, Riopelle say if City doesn't spend state grant dollars, Red Lake River Corridor Enhancement Group members will receive no further grants

Mike Christopherson

   Although there is concern about how a significant increase in construction-related costs could negatively impact a new RV campground in Central Park, members of the Crookston City Council this week determined that they won’t know how concerned they should be until they see the bids to do the project, and they won’t see the bids unless they order plans and specifications for the project, which is funded mostly by a state grant.

    So the council ordered the preparation of the plans and specifications on a unanimous vote.

    But not before they engaged in a considerable discussion on the matter, spurred mostly by At Large Council Member Tom Vedbraaten’s questions about the costs to build the campground and operate the campground, and his belief that not many Crookston residents want an RV campground in Central Park.

    “As I talk to the public in stores and at the gas station, I haven’t heard any of the public thinking this is a good idea,” Vedbraaten said. “This is a lot of money we’re going to stick up for something I don’t think the public is really sold on.”

Big state grant

    Crookston belongs to the Red Lake River Corridor Enhancement Group, along with other cities on the river from Thief River Falls to East Grand Forks. Several years ago, the group’s joint powers board determined that Crookston was the furthest along among the membership in putting together various river-enhancement initiatives and, therefore, should take the lead in applying for and potentially getting grant funding from the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks & Trails Commission (GMRPTC).

    So Crookston leaders applied for and received funds for projects that improved canoe launches, river-related signage and added other river-related amenities.

    But the RV campground in Central Park was the biggest carrot. In the wake of the city council several years ago rejecting – after a neighborhood uproar – a private developer’s proposal to put an RV campground in Sampson’s Addition’s Castle Park, the focus shifted to Central Park, home to a small, “primitive” campground. The City a couple years ago applied for a grant through the corridor group and was awarded $1.4 million from the GMRPTC for an RV campground with approximately 40 full-service slots, with a required local match of approximately $400,000 that would be invested in a new batthhouse/storm shelter that would service those using the campground. That money has since been set aside in the City Parks & Recreation budget.

    Since that time, the council has approved various steps along the path toward the RV campground becoming a reality, but now it needs to be built. The grant funds need to be spent and the campground needs to be finished by June of 2022, or Crookston will forfeit the grant funds. Spurred by concerns about construction materials costs rising as much as 40% of late – it’s believed to be pandemic-related and, in another example, has resulted in a scaled-back Ag Innovation Campus in Crookston – when the topic of seeking an extension of the grant deadline came up during the council debate, Parks & Recreation Director Scott Riopelle said the GMRPTC will not grant such a request.

    If Crookston doesn’t meet the deadline or if the council at some point votes down the RV campground in Central Park and in the process rejects the grant money, Mayor Dale Stainbrook said it will give Crookston a black eye among the other river corridor group members, and the group can forget about any chance of receiving GMRPTC grants in the future.

    “It would be a bad idea to pull out; these are Legacy (Fund) dollars that were awarded to the corridor,” Stainbrook said. “The committee said Crookston could move forward first. If we deny this, they’ll be mad at us. Then, to get more money into the corridor, it will be almost impossible.”

    Riopelle was even more direct.

    “If we don’t expend that money and give it back, the corridor won’t get any further grants,” he said.

    Vedbraaten raised concerns that the mayor and other council members said had been discussed previously by the council and didn’t rise to the level that threatened to derail the project. For instance, Vedbraaten said paying to staff and operating the RV campground would be an “ongoing money pit.” But, to that, Ward 1 Council Member Kristie Jerde noted that the RV campground along the river in East Grand Forks gives a camper a free RV slot in return for serving as the campground host. Vedbraaten also noted that Central Park can be flooded by the Red Lake River at almost any time of the year; to that, he was reminded that the campground’s components will be designed so that they can be removed when high water threatens.

    Three council members not on the council when the grant was awarded, Jerde, Ward 5’s Joe Kresl and Ward 6’s Dylane Klatt, each said they favored moving to the next step in the process by ordering the plans and specifications.

    “This is a good thing to try to bring people to town and businesses to town,” Kresl said.

    “We are in a space where we have a campground that has a lot of these amenities within 25 minutes (East Grand Forks),” Jerde added. “If we are trying to be competitive as a city, this does us good; it keeps people and business in town. An improved campground could do some real good. I don’t take our significant costs lightly, but it’s been budgeted and thought through in the past. …I want us to be a good partner to the rest of the people in the corridor.”

    At Large Council Member Wayne Melbye, who was a council member and mayor during previous RV campground discussions and is now back on the council after previously not running for re-election, said “a lot of people put in a lot of time and effort” from Thief River Falls to East Grand Forks, with the goal of having RV campgrounds with all of the desired services and amenities along the corridor. “If you want to take that middle cog (an RV campground in Crookston) out of the whole team, people will be disappointed that we weren’t up front enough or bold enough to move forward,” Melbye said. “…It’s one of the pieces of the puzzle that I think needs to be put in.”    Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson said his primary concern at this point is rising costs busting the budget and leading to a finished product not nearly as good as the one initially envisioned. “Will we get what we want with the money we’re getting?” he wondered.

    That question won’t be answered until the plans and specifications lead to actual bids, City Administrator Amy Finch said. She went on to assure council members that if the bids that come in “blow the grant dollars out of the water,” the council will have the right to reject them.

    Finch also noted that it’s impossible to have answers to every question at this point related to the RV campground, but that the City has the team in place to answer questions and address concerns as they arise.

    “There are unanswered questions at this point, like how to staff (the campground), but that’s why you’ve hired staff and directors and supervisors,” Finch said. “Those are all things we are charged with vetting out and making responsible decisions for the community’s safety and for the budget.”