Finch: 'I know I've handled this differently than my predecessors'
City administrator discusses what led her to propose dissolving CHEDA, and what she envisions in regard to a re-established HRA and City Community Development Department, if she gets council approval
The interview in her office completed Thursday afternoon, City of Crookston Administrator Amy Finch asked if she could add a comment on the “continuing story” she said she’s heard since she came to Crookston last October, the continuing story being told and re-told having to do with various issues arising in recent years between the City of Crookston – whether it’s the city council, previous mayors or previous administrators – and CHEDA, whether that’s CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth or the CHEDA Board of Directors.
“I know I’ve handled this differently than my predecessors,” Finch said.
By “handled,” she means her proposal to dissolve CHEDA and replace it with a City-run Community Development Department that would be located at city hall. The council on May 24 approved two resolutions calling for public hearings at the Monday, June 14 council meeting, which, due to anticipated turnout, will not be held in the city hall council chambers but in the Crookston High School auditorium instead. One public hearing is a required step toward potentially dissolving CHEDA. The other, according to its official language, has to do with the need for a Housing and Redevelopment Authority in Crookston, which is a big part of CHEDA’s mission. But Finch said, if her proposal is eventually approved by the council, an HRA would be relaunched under the City umbrella and, she envisions, would be located where it once was, Oak Court, which CHEDA owns and serves as landlord, before the HRA office relocated to Valley Technology Park.
“We have to be courageous enough, professional enough and dedicated enough to talk about the real issues. You cannot always try to fix something by addressing the symptoms of the issues; you won’t get very far doing that,” Finch continued after the Times asked all of its questions, adding that she believes previous decisions made by previous decision-makers were made in the best interests of the community at the time and she respects those decisions.
“Part of being a leader is being adaptive and evaluating all the time. What we’re doing right now, today, is not working for us and it’s not providing the very best service to our public, who we work for,” Finch said. “It will be most beneficial to the community of Crookston if we can respectively and thoughtfully start talking about real issues, concerns and ideas and not skirting around them so much. Having tough conversations does not mean you’re hurting feelings. They’re necessary, a part of real life. I have been saying that over and over and over.”
Finch several days ago released an online survey for Crookston residents to offer their feedback on various City services, the City website, and CHEDA, which so far has generated more than 400 responses, anonymous in nature, that will be analyzed by a third-party vendor. Then, hours before her interview with the Times on Thursday, she released via email what she called an “Informational Memo” in which she provided an update on where things stand after the May 24 council meeting leading up to the June 14 public hearings. In the memo, Finch also answered several questions she said she’s been hearing in the community most frequently since the May 24 council meeting. Most of them have to do with the future of the HRA, she said, and in her answers included in her memo Finch tried to dispel any fears that that HRA would no longer exist, and, as a result, federal Housing and Urban Development funds would no longer funnel into Crookston through the HRA, and Oak Court would close.
Finch told the Times that the HRA would be “re-established” and would have a board and she’s envisioning two staff members that would report to that board. While stressing the board would have final say on various matters, Finch would like to see the HRA back at Oak Court.
“I think the residents miss it there; I think we could really up our level of service there by being available, present and visible,” she said.
Asked May 24 if current HRA staff would be “guaranteed” jobs if her proposal is eventually approved by the council, Finch responded that her desire would be to have “no disruption” in HRA services, but that she would defer to the new HRA Board to forge the path forward.
“That is not a decision that Administrator Finch will have full authority to make, and it shouldn’t be that way, anyway,” she said. “I think an HRA Board thoughtfully put together…if you form a board you certainly want to have their weigh-in on important decisions on programs servicing tenants.”
When the Times reached out to Finch on May 21 when the May 24 council agenda was released and asked if Hoiseth was aware of it, she said she had tried without success to speak to him earlier that day about what she was proposing. Asked Thursday in her office if she had spoken directly with Hoiseth yet about the proposal, she said she had not. The extent of their contact involved a Zoom meeting earlier Thursday with several other people in which they both participated, Finch said. (The Times also asked Finch if she’s spoken with Shannon Stassen, her predecessor who reached a separation agreement with the City around 18 months ago after he essentially delivered an ultimatum to the council, that either he go, or Hoiseth go. Finch said she’s spoken to Stassen “only briefly” about various ongoing matters, mostly involving projects in Crookston being funded by the State through the Red Lake River Corridor Group, with which Stassen was heavily involved.)
This current climate certainly seems like a far cry from Finch’s earliest days on the job last fall, when, during various discussions at CHEDA Board meetings, “Amy” and “Craig” were mentioned hand-in-hand in regard to initiatives being pursued or projects being considered. But that positive tone seemed to fade over time, to the point that there was a somewhat awkward back-and-forth between Finch and Hoiseth – and to a lesser extent, CHEDA Board member Leon Kremeier – at the CHEDA Board’s May meeting over the source of the funding for the $250,000 forgivable loan given to Epitome Energy founder and CEO Dennis Egan.
Asked if the “honeymoon period” between she and Hoiseth or the City and CHEDA ended at some point, and, if so, why, Finch said she and Hoiseth, simply put, are different people, approach things differently, and do things differently.
“When I first came in, it was Minnesota Manufacturers Week right off the bat, and Craig took me around and introduced me to our industry partners and I appreciated that. We still continued to meet until very recently, weekly, maybe with the mayor or staff, too,” she explained. “Craig and I have different management styles, different approaches to projects and proposals and issues in front of us. I worked very hard not to base any opinions on simple hearsay when I came in. …I just do things a little bit differently. I’m not willing to completely abandon my vision and management style, even if it doesn’t identically align with someone else.”
Since May 21, Hoiseth has been contacted by the Times on multiple occasions, and he has said each time that he is not ready to comment publicly on Finch’s proposal. A special CHEDA Board meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday, June 8 at 7 p.m. at Valley Technology Park. There is one item on the agenda, a resolution “opposing City of Crookston’s proposed dissolution of CHEDA.”
Asked Friday by the Times about the special meeting and lone agenda item, Hoiseth said in an email that “CHEDA's statement will be deliberated by the Board and conveyed on Tuesday evening.”
More than cost savings?
Egan provided an update to the council in May, and he was greeted with several pointed questions and concerns, mostly from first-term Ward 1 Council Member Kristie Jerde. But Finch voiced several questions and concerns as well, and at one point said she wished things had been “done differently” in regard to the Epitome Energy initiative. Then, when confronted with questions and concerns about her proposal to dissolve CHEDA at the May 24 council meeting, Finch at one point said she wants to “do better.”
From the moment her proposal went public, Finch has said dissolving CHEDA would save the City money. The Times asked initially and asked again Thursday in her office if a specific dollar amount in regard to those savings has been identified, and both times she said those figures will be detailed at the June 14 public hearing.
But, Finch was asked, is her proposal about more than saving money? After all, a major component of her proposal is replacing CHEDA with a City Community Development Department and hiring a community development director. Is her proposal also at least partly about CHEDA’s performance?
Finch said that, more than anything else, it’s about a lack of communication and too much miscommunication.
“I think there have been many opportunities for missed communication,” she said, mentioning Epitome Energy specifically. “I think without the City and CHEDA being on the same page as two entities working directly with the developer, it caused misunderstandings on both sides, which will impact the developer. I wished things were different, I wished for more effective communication since the beginning of the project. Timelines got out of order and certain things got ahead of other things. Better communication, a consistent message and agreed-upon plans would have helped Epitome and everyone else involved.”
But Finch went beyond Epitome Energy, mentioning two mixed-use apartment project proposals, one on North Broadway south of Casey’s General Store and the other downtown, at the site of the former Crookston American Legion. Both were discussed frequently at various CHEDA Board, City Planning Commission and city council meetings as due diligence progressed and various steps in the process were taken in regard to both developments. But neither developer has been heard from publicly and no local decision-makers have discussed either proposed project in public since a tense council meeting in 2020 at which both developments were discussed amid raised voices and various accusations.
Citing those two proposed projects, Finch said, again, she sees communication at the heart of the matter.
“The biggest issue I’m seeing is communications that are adequate, consistent and open, and sharing all communications where everyone is on the same playing field,” she said. With a City-run Community Development Department located at city hall, communication and efficiency can only improve, Finch stressed. “Just focusing on communication alone, having an economic development person as part of the core of City leadership, it puts that person more in direct contact with people they’re going to need to rely on,” whether they’re involved in finance, utilities and infrastructure, or planning and zoning, she continued. “It closes some of those gaps and eliminates opportunities for dropped, missed or inadvertent communication.”
More council support now?
The Times asked Finch if, in coming forth with her proposal to dissolve CHEDA, she had considered the current make-up of the city council versus the council prior to the November 2020 election. The Times suggested that the pre-election council might not have produced enough votes to advance her proposal, but that the post-election council might have more members that would look upon her proposal favorably.
Finch noted that she only had an opportunity to work with the council for about a month prior to the November election and that she wasn’t in a position at that very early stage in her tenure here to make the recommendation that she’s currently making. “I would not have been able to develop a thoughtful, educated proposal” last fall, she added.
No matter who’s seated on the council, Finch said it’s her job and her responsibility to bring various ideas and proposals to the council, even if the council doesn’t support them.
“There will be times I’ll bring something forward that doesn’t get off the ground, but sometimes it’s still important to have that discussion,” she explained. “The only way to start talking about something is to start talking about it, and that should be with the city council seated as the city council.
“Sometimes you need to have a conversation even if you’re not sure it’s a ‘yes’ vote; I don’t believe in operating that way. I wouldn’t bring something forth if I didn’t think it was the best recommendation,” Finch continued. “I will continue to bring things to the floor; what (the council) determines from there is their prerogative. I don’t think wondering if you have enough votes to push something through is a good reason to stall or delay.”
Future of VTP
A financial drain on the budget several years ago, the Valley Technology Park building, where CHEDA is housed and serves as the landlord for various business, agency and organization tenants, is now in the black financially. It has anchor tenants such as U of M Extension, AURI and the United Way of Crookston, but also still has a business “incubation” function, with perhaps its biggest success story, Vertical Malt, preparing to expand from several large bays in the rear of VTP to a new building proposed for construction on Crookston’s southern edge.
Asked what would become of the City-owned VTP building if CHEDA is dissolved and replaced by a Community Development Department at city hall and a re-established HRA is located to Oak Court, Finch said there is “no intent to not have VTP” and no intent to disrupt any leases or tenants.
“It is not part of the proposal to disrupt anything as far as tenants or leases and we would continue to honor things in place,” Finch said. Asked if that stance would remain when various leases expire, Finch said it is not her “recommendation to end incubation” at VTP.
“I think it’s been successful,” she added.