Council wants to hear from public on proposed apartment/mixed-use/town square development

Mike Christopherson
mchristopherson@crookstontimes.com

The Crookston City Council this week unanimously allowed a proposed mixed-use development on and near the former American Legion property downtown featuring an apartment building, retail space and a relocated town square advance to the next step in the process: Letting the public offer their thoughts on the project.

Interim City Administrator Angel Weasner said the public hearing will likely take place at the council’s Monday, Sept. 10 meeting.

Dakota Commercial, JLG Architects and Community Contractors are working together on the project, which would have the developer invest around $7 million to construct a 39-unit market-rate apartment complex on the Legion site with underground parking. The City’s contribution would come in the form of relocating its town square currently situated a couple blocks to the north, conveying two City-owned parking lots to the south of the Legion building, and being in charge through a lease-hold agreement of finding a business tenant(s) for the 7,000-plus square feet on the first floor. The City would also have to approve the establishment of a tax-increment-financing (TIF) district for the project.

“Every study we’ve paid big money for says we need this,” Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson said, listing the Downtown Master Plan, housing study and Comprehensive Plan.

CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth has been working with the developers for some time on the proposal, and said at his board meeting last month that the council needed to take the lead on the project if it is going to become reality.

Questioned this week by the council about what type of TIF district is appropriate for the project and also hearing council concerns about the City’s responsibility when it comes to paying rent for the first floor space while trying to find a tenant(s), Hoiseth stressed how rare it is for a developer to offer to invest this kind of money in a community project, especially in a town the size of Crookston.

“An opportunity has never been presented like this for Crookston. Every study for 20 years with public input has driven toward something like this,” Hoiseth said. “The developer is offering to put $7 million in the community to create an opportunity we’ve never had before. An opportunity to have more business and potentially more businesses show up, on a landscape with this riverfront and a mixed-use building; it could be pretty incredible.”

At this stage of the process, Hoiseth said he didn’t think everyone should get bogged down with worry over whether or not the City may or may not have to pay some rent on the first-floor space for a period of time.

“I don’t want to stifle creativity by saying we’re just going to have to pay some rent,” he continued. “We knew a development like this would be a public/private partnership and would be a heavy lift, sort of like the Fournet building. It’s not just going to come for free; 39 market-rate units in downtown Crookston, that’s not easy to come by.”

Asked by At Large Council Member Bobby Baird if more apartments could simply be added to the first floor space instead of retail, Hoiseth said that could be negotiated, but he added that the Downtown Master Plan, which includes a development in the vein of the one being proposed, recommends retail space on the first floor.

Still, Ward 6 Council Member Dylane Klatt said he feared the City being “on the hook” with an extended lease payment for the first floor. “If we can’t find anyone to rent those spaces, we would have to pay,” he said.

Hoiseth, noting the lease-hold agreement hasn’t been fully negotiated, said, “I think this type of project will generate the type of enthusiasm where we’ll get to the point of not being the landlord.”

Parking issues

Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee, who’s involved with the Crookston Eagles, located immediately to the west of the two parking lots that the City would give up as part of the project, said the availability of parking in the vicinity will influence his level of support of the proposed development down the road. He noted that Tri-Valley Opportunity Council leadership indicated, when they sealed an agreement to relocate their headquarters across North Broadway to the Fournet building, that they’d consider the “best interests” of the community when deciding the fate of their current headquarters at the corner of Robert Street and North Broadway.

Fee, noting that the intersection, specifically the turn north from Robert Street to North Broadway, has been deemed difficult and even dangerous by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, suggested touching base with Tri-Valley leaders and MnDOT as part of considering the development on and near the Legion property.

It’s been suggested that the current Tri-Valley building could be demolished and as part of a potential project involving a safer curve from Robert Street to North Broadway, parking capacity would be added at the site of the former Tri-Valley building.

“Parking is going to be a concern if we lose those two lots, so it needs to be part of the conversation,” Fee said. “I think we need to reach out on that dangerous corner and see if we can make changes and have more parking. It’s going to be a factor in how I feel about (the proposed mixed-use development).”

Erickson stressed that the council was only advancing the project to a point where a public hearing would provide an opportunity for a discussion with the public.

“We’re not making a final decision now, we’re just keeping the ball rolling,” he said. “If we drop it now, that’s it, the project is gone.”

At Large Council Member Tom Vedbraaten said it’s been suggested that local governments be more cautious when it comes to investing, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But he said the proposed development looks especially promising.

“It’s a great idea, and if you look at the drawings, it’s just an ideal spot,” he said. “People love the market-rate apartments. …Sometimes you need to move ahead.”