EDITORIAL: River-related grant deserves city council support

Mike Christopherson
Mike Christopherson

There’s no such thing as free money, even if there’s grant funding involved. The vast majority of grants are awarded with strings attached; recipients aren’t just given money to spend as they wish, there are criteria to follow and initiatives to advance and outcomes to achieve.

But if the State of Minnesota, through the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks & Trails Commission (GMRPTC), is potentially going to give a group known as the Red Lake River Corridor Enhancement Group Joint Powers Board – comprised of six communities, including Crookston – a $98,000 grant over two years, and your town, where you serve on the city council, has to come up with only $4,084 over those two years in order to secure the funds and the benefits that come with those funds, wouldn’t you approach the news in a positive fashion?

And wouldn’t your positive reaction be even more enthusiastic when you learn that the grant funds will be invested in activities and events – 12 over two years, two in each member community – that give “underserved” populations, described in the grant proposal as new Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, the elderly, disabled and low-income individuals, a chance to experience the Red Lake River?

If you’re a member of the Crookston City Council, not so much, apparently.

Asked last week to approve a resolution supporting the grant proposal and the $4,084 match, the council voted to table the resolution until they next meet on July 27, when they hope to have more information at their disposal.

Why weren’t they ready to support it on July 13? Well, three council members, Jake Fee, Bobby Baird and Dylane Klatt, expressed the exact concern: That too much of the grant funds would be spent on marketing the river-related events and the grant initiative in general, and not on “tangible” things that have a direct role in making the events happen, such as equipment.

Fee and Baird both noted that Crookston has a Convention & Visitors’ Bureau to handle that kind of marketing. Yes, we do, and we of course wish them the best. But our CVB was so frustrated and apparently dysfunctional that this past spring it asked to sever ties with the local Chamber of Commerce so it could essentially start anew on its own, with a revamped board, bylaws and mission focus. The entity is in the very, very early stages of doing just that, but you’re going to drop this in their lap? When $98,000 in state dollars are potentially available to help Crookston and other Red Lake River communities introduce underserved populations to the joys of the river?

Then there’s this fact: Marketing to underserved populations is no easy task. The target audiences listed in the grant are often out of the loop and trying to get by as best they can in their own bubble, and they’re entirely accustomed to that situation. Reaching them requires creativity and persistence, engaging them requires creativity and persistence, and getting them to show up for things requires creativity and persistence.

But, back to “tangible” things…

Interim City Administrator Angel Weasner was absent from the July 13 council meeting, but in her agenda and memo for that meeting she sung the praises of Crookston’s membership in the river corridor enhancement group and how that membership has benefited Crookston. (Three years ago, most of a $200,000 grant from the GMRPTC went toward improved river access in and near Crookston and new signage, and two years ago more than $1 million was awarded to Crookston for a new RV campground scheduled to be built in 2021.)

In Weasner’s absence, Parks & Recreation Director Scott Riopelle explained the grant to the council on July 13 and the need for the supportive resolution. Riopelle also told Fee, Baird, Klatt and the rest of the council that there are significant dollars in the grant budget for equipment and contracting for services. Riopelle said he suspects the equipment would involve things like canoes and kayaks and that services to be contracted with would likely involve canoe guides and/or outfitters.

Ward 2 Council Member SteveErickson said he suspects that the council will be supportive once it has more information on the grant. Hopefully he’s right, because the information the council was provided on July 13 certainly seemed sufficient to garner a vote in favor at that time.