Perceived struggles between the Chamber and new CVB take center stage

Mike Christopherson

A wide-ranging, enthusiastic and at times tense debate and discussion at Monday evening’s Crookston City Council Ways and Means Committee meeting concluded with everyone in the room agreeing that even though they are now separate entities, the newly revamped and newly named Crookston Visitors Bureau and the Crookston Area Chamber of Commerce need to get along and work together.

But reaching that resolution didn’t come easy, considering that the give-and-take discussion included:

• Crookston Inn & Convention Center general manager/owner and new CVB leader Laurie Stahlecker taking turns at the podium with Chamber Executive Director Terri Heggie, each of whom told their side of the story, and with claims of emails sent and not sent, and non-existent replies to emails sent or not sent;

• Recent Ward 6 council member appointee Dylane Klatt, saying he didn’t see how it was possible for Stahlecker and Heggie to get along and for their entities to work together for the betterment of Crookston, making a motion that the council end the lodging tax and, in the process, end the CVB, a motion that died due to the lack of a second;

• City Attorney Charles “Corky” Reynolds, when called to the podium by Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee, saying that he believes it’s legal for the new CVB, as an official “entity” but not yet an official 501(c)6, to work with its initial board on promoting the community or events that bring people to the community, even though it’s not yet legally permitted to access lodging tax dollars to actually pay for various marketing and promotional initiatives: “They exist. They’re the Crookston Visitors Bureau,” Reynolds explained. “How they choose to tell people they exist, to say here we are, that’s probably not marketing.”

• Heggie saying that she thinks the new CVB is duplicating and even “mirroring” things that the Chamber already does, and that even though Stahlecker says the CVB’s work at this moment is free of charge and being done on a volunteer basis, Chamber member businesses pay an annual fee for their Chamber membership: Given that, Heggie continued, there is a major concern about duplication, and what member businesses are getting in return for their membership fees if another entity is seemingly doing similar things for free: “All these things that are part of the Chamber mission, all of these pieces that we’re currently doing, many of them seem to be being duplicated, and very rapidly,” Heggie said.

• Stahlecker saying that she didn’t appreciate being contacted over the weekend with a summons to come to the council meeting Monday evening to address concerns over “CVB activities” and not knowing how to prepare – at the meeting she handed out a two-page history of communications, milestones and other activities she compiled since the council earlier this year allowed the Chamber and CVB to sever their ties: Stahlecker said more than once that a phone call would have sufficed, instead of bringing the discussion into public and, in the process, once again potentially making Crookston and its elected and appointed leaders look bad. Stahlecker said she felt “stupid” for having to stand at the podium and “dumb” for feeling compelled to say the things she was saying, and that she was “embarrassed” by the whole scene Monday evening in the council chambers.

“I think if you guys had an issue with what we’re doing, a phone call would have been much better than this coming out in public,” she said. “It doesn’t look good.”

• Mayor Dale Stainbrook apologizing to Stahlecker for how the situation leading up to Monday evening’s discussion was carried out: “I apologize for the way this panned out; I sincerely mean that,” he said. 

The issues, concerns

Stainbrook said the matter had been put on the agenda over concerns that the Crookston Visitors Bureau was already engaged in marketing efforts even though they’re still likely months away from securing their official non-profit status.

After Reynolds indicated there was nothing illegal about what the CVB has been doing, Stahlecker said that the new CVB’s activities have been largely limited to launching a new Facebook page.

Reynolds was able to clear up some confusion over a couple of other issues.

For one, Stahlecker and the new, initial CVB leadership has been seeking Chamber/CVB financial records dating back three years that they believed were necessary as part of their application for non-profit certification. Stahlecker said even though a public records information request had been submitted several weeks ago, Interim City Administrator Angel Weasner said the information wouldn’t be available until next week. But Reynolds said the three years of requested financial records is not necessary because the new CVB is a new entity operating on its own and those financial records are not relevant.

“What the Chamber and CVB did the previous three years is irrelevant; this is a new legal entity and they have no history,” Reynolds explained. “They can go in on their own (and submit the necessary documentation to secure non-profit status) with no history.”

For another, there was some uncertainty and disagreement over the council’s authority over who will serve on the new CVB Board of Directors. But Reynolds, Weasner and Stahlecker were able to agree that even though an initial board has been assembled – a requirement as part of pursuing non-profit status – once the status is granted and the CVB has access to lodging tax revenue collected by the City, CVB leadership will be able to recommend CVB Board appointees to the council, but the council will have the final say on who serves on the board. Two council members will also be appointed to serve on the board.

Klatt said he sees the Chamber and new CVB embarking on a “turf war.” To that, Stahlecker and Heggie and, later in the meeting, Chamber Board Chair Lance Norman, all agreed that the respective boards, for the good of both entities and the community as a whole, need to sit down together once in a while.

Stahlecker added that on July 1 she asked for the council to assist with naming a “liaison” to work between the Chamber and CVB boards, and has heard nothing since. “We’ve asked for input and haven’t heard back,” she said. “Where is the malfunction here? Not with us.”

Instead of hearing talk about working together, Klatt said he’s hearing about “confrontation” and “struggles.” “Have you talked to me?” Stahlecker responded. Klatt responded that he wanted to see the “head-butting” stop.

Stahlecker said she sees the Chamber and CVB often working on “parallel lines,” with the Chamber promoting the local business community and Crookston as a community for people come and live and work and play and learn and retire, and the CVB promoting events that get people to come and spend a night or two in Crookston, and maybe buy some gas and food and beverages while they’re here.

“Why are we arguing about who’s doing what?” she added.

Echoing Klatt, Stainbrook said he’s hearing “scuttle” in the community about struggles between the Chamber and CVB, and, the mayor added, even though they’re separate entities, they’re going to have to work together on certain issues.

Norman said he welcomes the opportunity for the Chamber Board to meet periodically with the new CVB Board.

“I look forward to an invite; I never miss a meeting I’m invited to,” he said.