Council will consider Finch's proposal to dissolve CHEDA at special meeting June 21

Mike Christopherson
Mike Skaug, board chair of the Ag Innovation Campus being built in Crookston, said during the public hearing that the AIC management team was surprised to hear about all of the difficulties between the City of Crookston and CHEDA. AIC leaders had a positive experience working with both, Skaug said.

After around 100 people attended a Crookston City Council meeting Monday evening, held in the Crookston High School auditorium to accommodate the expected large audience, council members will digest the comments they heard at a public hearing both in favor of and in opposition to City Administrator Amy Finch’s proposal to dissolve the Crookston Housing and Economic Development Authority (CHEDA) and re-establish an independent Housing and Redevelopment Authority, in advance of a special Ways and Means Committee meeting on Monday, June 21 at 6:30 p.m.

In an email to the Times Tuesday, Finch said the lone agenda item at that meeting will be to “Consider Rescission and Dissolution of Crookston Housing & Economic Development Authority (CHEDA) and Consider Alternatives to Rescission and Dissolution of CHEDA.”

“It is my expectation that at this meeting the council can agree by consensus on how to move forward and have an opportunity to digest the public input prior to the meeting to discuss on Monday,” Finch stated in her email.

Strong opinions on both sides

When all was said at done after around 90 minutes Monday evening, of those who chose to step to the podium in front of the stage and provide their name and address before speaking, around half were in favor of Finch’s proposal, which would replace CHEDA with a City-run Community Development Department housed at city hall, and around half voiced support for leaving CHEDA as it is. Some who provided their thoughts agreed that changes need to be made, but maybe not as massive as dissolving CHEDA. About half of the speakers in favor of dissolving CHEDA received applause from some in the audience, as did about half of the speakers who voiced support for leaving CHEDA alone.

A rundown of the comments:

• Demetrious Griffin, who said he moved from Minneapolis to Crookston last November and lives at the intersection of Third Avenue NE and Barrette Street and utilizes various housing programs through CHEDA, said CHEDA “saved my life.” He said he had to get out of Minneapolis and turn his life around, and he has done just that in Crookston, working, going to church and being a productive member of society. 

“If it hadn’t been for this program and others, then we will be left out in the cold,” Griffin said. “I don’t want to get too involved in the politics and money and all that, but I can say this: I love this town of Crookston. If it hadn’t been for CHEDA, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

Demetrious Griffin returns to his seat after making his comments at Monday's public hearing. He said housing programs available through CHEDA saved his life when he moved from Minneapolis to Crookston last November.

• Mike Skaug, a Polk County farmer and chair of the Ag Innovation Campus Board of Directors, said AIC leaders had great success working with both the City and CHEDA to make their initiative a reality. City hall helped with specific requests, Skaug said, while CHEDA helped with planning.

“Our project management team is kind of surprised this issue came up because we’ve been totally happy with how things have gone with the council and CHEDA,” he said. “Everything has been accurate and spot-on. We hope things can improve with your relationships.”

• Robin Brekken, citing a report earlier in the meeting on the results of a recent community survey disseminated by Finch seeking Crookston residents’ views on the City/city council and CHEDA’s performance, said he wasn’t entirely comfortable turning economic development functions over to the City and city council when, according to the survey, only around half of the 717 respondents think the City and city council are doing a good job overall.

“The City grades in the survey aren’t very flattering, either; I’d call it an F,” Brekken said. “It doesn’t get me all that excited to transfer all of this from CHEDA to someone who has a current grade of an F.”

Brekken asked for more patience, due diligence, communications and transparency.

“One of the most important words used tonight is culture; it’s been bad and it’s still bad,” he said. “The worst part, it’s a real bitch to change…pardon my French. There’s been a lot of accusations, innuendo, smoke and mirrors and subjective information.”

“This is a big move; it’s about our city’s future,” he continued. “I’m in no hurry to get this done, but if it needs to get done, let’s do it right.”

• Bob Herkenhoff, a developer who’s worked with the City and CHEDA for the last seven years on the community’s most successful new residential housing efforts in the northeast corner of town, questioned the process that led to the rejection of his offer to sell 60 acres of land to the eastern city limits boundary for $375,000 to continue those housing efforts. 

Last December, Herkenhoff said he met with Finch and Hoiseth to discuss his offer – he said he was looking to retire and step back from a leadership role in the continued development of the area – and he was under the impression he’d be on a council Ways and Means Committee agenda in January. A subsequent meeting with his attorney, the City attorney and Finch took place, and Herkenhoff said he asked Hoiseth why he wasn’t there. To that, Herkenhoff said Hoiseth told him he didn’t know about the meeting.

Herkenhoff dismissed the notion that his opposition to paying for a portion of a wetlands delineation study sunk the deal.

“These 60 acres of land is a real missed opportunity; it’s where people want to build,” he said, adding that the land owned by the City on the north side of the Polk County Highway 11/Fisher Avenue, known as Crookston Sports Center subdivision and where City leaders have long envisioned where the next big neighborhood will go “has always had difficulties” with drainage problems and the high cost of extending utilities.

“It needs storm sewer, and that’s a seven-figure project,” Herkenhoff told the Times after Monday evening’s meeting. “You can’t move all that water by relying on ditches.”

• Larry Altringer, a former CHEDA Board member from several years ago and an owner of multiple businesses, said he’d never enter any city hall to close a business deal. “There’s too many leaks,” he said. Altringer cited the deal that brought the New Flyer of America final assembly plant to Crookston many years ago. “It took nine months but it was quiet,” he recalled, noting that local stakeholders didn’t want Grand Forks leaders hearing about the proposed deal and offering New Flyer a better deal to build there.

He said if the two leaders of two organizations can’t get together and can’t stop “acting like 10-year-olds,” then they should both be fired.

• Brian LaPlante, owner of the former Crookston American Legion building, said “CHEDA leadership” is the problem that “keeps coming up over and over again.” Even if the council eventually doesn’t move forward with Finch’s proposal, LaPlante said an “immediate change in leadership” is needed at CHEDA. He said Hoiseth doesn’t communicate with businesses or contractors and doesn’t provide a plan going forward when it comes to working with businesses.

“If people have looked at CHEDA and said it’s worked in the past, it probably has, but not with this current leader,” LaPlante said. If Hoiseth is replaced, he continued, then the City can look at ways to increase oversight of CHEDA and, specifically, City money allocated to CHEDA by the council. “It just can’t be given as a blank check,” LaPlante said.

• Philip Barton, who resigned earlier this year as City IT director, said CHEDA doesn’t fit with the community’s values because CHEDA and its board serve CHEDA and its interests before anything else. Reading from the oaths of office recited by CHEDA Board members, Barton said they must first serve the best interests of CHEDA and serve as an advocate for CHEDA, “not the City of Crookston or the taxpayers.”

“The solution is not to modify CHEDA, not to request a change in mission or operating guidelines or have more (City) influence,” Barton continued. “The solution is to eliminate CHEDA.”

• Bob Prudhomme said it seems like changes need to be made, but maybe smaller changes at first to see if they work. If they reap rewards, that’s great, he said. If they don’t, then bigger changes could then be considered. Prudhomme added that he was surprised to learn that Hoiseth answers to his CHEDA Board and not to the city council.

• Marsha Odom said it seems as if the council and mayor, who are elected, don’t have a “clear path” when it comes to working with or supervising Hoiseth. The appointed CHEDA Board, whom the community did not elect, “has the power over what he does,” she added.

“The council named Amy Finch as our city administrator. She has proposed a way to give the city council some authority for supervising the work of economic development and housing,” Odom noted. “I support at least the general idea of the proposal.”

Notes on the public hearing

• People were given three minutes to speak. When they reached their time limit, they were cut off by Deputy City Clerk Ashley Rystad.

• Some of the harshest comments about CHEDA and Hoiseth were stated by a trio of speakers early on in the public hearing, as they recited responses to a recent Ward 4/downtown business survey led by Ward 4 Council member Don Cavalier and the Downtown Crookston Development Partnership. Times Assistant Editor Jess Bengtson wrote about those survey findings in the June 14 edition of the Times and you can find it at crookstontimes.com.

• The first public hearing on Monday’s agenda involved dissolving CHEDA. There was a second public hearing on the agenda as well, specific to re-establishing an independent HRA if the council votes in favor of dissolving CHEDA. But since several HRA-specific comments were made during the first public hearing, no one came to the podium to speak during the second public hearing. All of the HRA-related comments made during the first public hearing were specific to the importance of not having any gaps or glitches during the transition that would be necessary if the current HRA went away in favor of a re-established independent HRA.

Perhaps the comments made by BriAnna Kappelhoff, who works with the Housing Intervention Program through Northwestern Mental Health Center, best summed up the concerns voiced by affordable/public housing advocates.

“The issue that scares me, we’re coming out of a terrible year with COVID, and we don’t want people on the streets or in tents,” she said, adding that when the eviction moratorium put in place during the pandemic is eventually lifted, many tenants could be faced with paying months of rent at once. “I don’t want to see anyone homeless or packing their things,” Kappelhoff said. “It’s very scary right now.”

Asked by Mayor Dale Stainbrook, right, to do so, City Administrator Amy Finch, left, makes some remarks prior to the public hearing at this week’s Crookston City Council meeting. In the middle is Deputy City Clerk Ashley Rystad.

Finch’s comments

Finch, asked by Mayor Dale Stainbrook to offer some thoughts before convening the public hearing, reiterated some of the things she has previously stated in the city hall council chambers and to the Times, mostly that since she came to Crookston she has been constantly confronted with the saga involving CHEDA and Hoiseth and the City. Finch said she has concluded that the persistent problem is hindering Crookston’s progress.

Other Finch remarks:

• On her “marching orders” when she was hired, which were referenced multiple times at a special CHEDA Board meeting last week, at which the board voted unanimously against Finch’s proposal, Finch said she read her job description very carefully before applying to be Crookston’s city administrator, “And nowhere did I see a requirement to get over there and fix years of systematic issues that have plagued this community.”

• On previous remarks made by CHEDA’s legal council that the state legislature’s “intent” is to have an EDA work largely in independent fashion from a City because the EDA’s mission is different and appointed board members can work differently than elected council members, Finch said she doesn’t believe the legislature “would ever create a conflict or challenge” to a City looking to operate its own community development department instead of an economic development authority, if that’s what a city council is in favor of doing

• On continued concerns about how she brought her proposal forward via the public release on Friday, May 24 of the council’s May 27 meeting agenda, which, she said, is the day agendas are always released, Finch said if given a chance to do it all over again, she wouldn’t change the way she went about going public with her proposal. (She has also largely moved away from holding Ways and Means Committee meetings, saying that issues should be discussed by the council when they’re seated and in session as a full council.)

“There’s been a culture in our community of deals done behind closed doors with a few there that impact many,” Finch said. “I never have, nor will I ever participate in that type of government.”

Had her proposal been put on a previous Ways and Means Committee agenda, she continued, “I don’t think we’d be here today having this discussion.”

“We are not and we will not use Ways and Means meetings like they’ve been done historically,” Finch added. “We are going to do better. If we are not hiding anything, then there should be no problem discussing a topic on an agenda as a public body.”

Saying part of her job is to be “thick-skinned,” Finch said the community has “deep wounds” and it’s time to “try to make them better.”

Finch presented a graphic that she said depicted the convoluted way that the City at city hall and CHEDA at Valley Technology Park communicate when potential economic development deals are being proposed. The graphic looked sort of like an asymmetrical spider web. Then she showed a graphic that she said would show a more efficient, streamlined communication pattern if CHEDA was replaced by a Community Development Department at city hall.

“The way we’re doing economic development right now is real messy; it’s not working very well,” Finch said. “There’s so much communication you can’t keep up with what’s happening, and it’s not fair to people.

“We want to have a one-stop shop; we’re not proposing to eliminate economic development because that would be crazy,” she added.

• On the cost savings Finch has cited as another benefit of her proposal, she noted that the proposal “never hinged” on saving the City hundreds of thousands of dollars. A “very conservative” estimate has the City saving $42,000 by moving forward with her proposal, Finch said, adding that she thinks the savings could exceed that estimate.

Finch added that, since 2012, the City has allocated approximately $2.6 million directly to CHEDA in the form of annual stipends to the agency or for various initiatives and projects. In November 2018, the council allocated $350,000 from City reserves to CHEDA in a lump sum with, Finch noted, “no restrictions.” (There were potential developments and land deals on the table at the time that were not publicly identified, but they ended up not coming to fruition.) That payment, Finch said, has been brought up to her more than any other CHEDA-related matter since she was hired, coming in second only to a $25,000 payment to Hoiseth approved by his board in October 2020 after an audit revealed that his 540 hours of accrued vacation was a liability on the books that needed to be addressed. In approving the payment, spread over several months, Hoiseth’s accrued vacation dropped to 200 hours, and the board vowed to keep better tabs on Hoiseth’s unused vacation time.

Hoiseth attended Monday evening’s council meeting but did not speak.