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Crookston City Council: 10 seek 4 seats

Mike Christopherson
Crookston Times

    Nine candidates shared the Crookston High School auditorium stage for this election year’s Meet the Candidates Forum. The tenth candidate, Ward 3 incumbent Clayton Briggs, was unable to attend. He is being challenged in Ward 3 by Blake Royal. In Ward 1, incumbent Jake Fee is being challenged by Kristie Jerde; in Ward 5 recent appointee Joe Kresl is being challenged by Casey Anderson and Marc Palmer; and, in the At Large seat up for election this year, incumbent Bobby Baird is being challenged by Morgan Hibma and Wayne Melbye.

    Briggs submitted a statement that was read by forum moderator Lance Norman.

    The candidates on stage were asked several questions submitted electronically by the public. What follows is a rundown of the highlights of what the candidates had to say.

Opening statements

    Fee said his first term was challenging but that he thinks the council has “turned things around in the past year” and even through some struggles has accomplished a lot in the last four years. He mentioned partnerships with the school district, the Fournet building, downtown projects and possibly new sidewalks coming, and housing partnerships with developer Bob Herkenhoff.

    Jerde said she’s invested in the continued growth of Crookston for young people, family businesses and the community as a whole. She said Crookston has potential “but we can do better” and that the council would benefit from some new perspectives. She said that, if elected, she’d push for more transparency and more information that’s more easily accessible by the public.

    Royal said if children are put first, more families will move to Crookston. He said the City needs to communicate better overall, whether it’s on the City website, via social media or other avenues. “We have to promote the community if we want people to take part,” Royal said.

    Kresl, even though he’s still pretty new to the council, said his years on the City Planning Commission have given him “tremendous insight.” He said the council needs to be a cohesive group made up of members who are able to “accept that things will not always go your way.”

    Anderson said she’s a compassionate advocate who encourages collaborative conversations. “I believe we can celebrate our history while also encouraging and facilitating growth,” she said.

    Baird said he’s always been a big support of local businesses and of bringing events and activities to Crookston that boost those businesses. He acknowledged the council has “had its issues” in recent years, but has “really moved ahead” of late.

    Hibma, who moved to Crookston five years ago, said she wants to give back to the community that has been “so very welcoming to me.” She said she brings positive change, fresh ideas and a sense of teamwork to the table, and has a track record professionally of helping small businesses grow.

    Palmer said he hasn’t liked the way the council or the City overall have been run for many years. He also said Crookston residents are taxed too much. He’s only one person, but noted that he “can be a thorn.”

    Melbye, after being on the council for many years and serving as mayor, took a two-year “hiatus” before deciding to pursue a return to the council to help with some “shortcomings” and a lack of communication between the council, CHEDA and city hall. “Honesty, respect and openness must be the building blocks,” Melbye said. “Working together is the only way to get things done.”

Pandemic’s impact on businesses and ways to keep them open

    Fee said, through his work with the Eagles Club, knows the pandemic’s impact firsthand. He said the federal CARES Act money has been a big help. He noted that the council could have targeted some of the funds internally, but made helping local businesses a priority. “We need to do our best to tighten our belt and keep taxes low,” Fee added.

    Jerde said the council needs to find out what businesses need to stay open, and expand. The council needs to work with CHEDA on “having those conversations” and not simply assume the council or CHEDA knows what businesses need.

    Royal said people more than anything need to promote Crookston first and shop Crookston first. While the pandemic is a major challenge, he said before COVID-19 hit people were still shopping on the internet instead of at Crookston businesses. “We always talk about getting more services, but we have to use them,” Royal said.

    Kresl said shopping local and supporting Crookston as a whole are a must. “Every dime counts at this point in time,” he said. Economic development initiatives, like the Ag Innovation Campus, need to focus on good-paying jobs, he said.

    Anderson said supporting and shopping Crookston is most important, but that the council needs to be ready to act quickly when funding opportunities are available. The council needs to better engage people and promote local businesses and events better.

    Baird said if people support local businesses, the local businesses support the community. He said the council needs to work with legislators to get more help for businesses. Getting more events in town would result in more money being spent locally, Baird added.

    Hibma said as someone who works in marketing, the council needs to be creative in coming up with ways to get people to support local businesses in a changing marketplace, and that businesses maybe need to offer services differently than they ever have before. Social media and grassroots work is her passion, she said. “I would like to be a resource whether I’m elected or not, “Hibma said.

    Palmer said Crookston needs more events. He said people are hurting and need help, and that  rent and the cost of utilities are too high in many cases.

    Melbye said legislators don’t have the time to “come up here and spoon-feed us” and that it falls on the council to know what’s going on with Crookston businesses. He said things like the Northwest Minnesota Small Business Development Center in Crookston can help.

Lack of transparency and how to improve it

    Fee said communication has been lacking but is getting better. The council and City need to “reach the community in a better way” so “people know what we’re working on,” he said.

    Jerde said it’s challenging for Crookston residents to get useful information when they’re researching or trying to get up to speed on what the council is doing. The council and City need to utilize the internet and social media more, she said. “As good as the local newspaper is, it shouldn’t be the end all, be all in getting information about the council,” Jerde said.

    Royal said it might be less about a lack of transparency and more about useful and up-to-date information being hard for the public to come by. It can’t all be the internet and social media, either, he said, noting that older residents often look to the newspaper and radio for their information.

    Kresl said he anticipates new City Administrator Amy Finch will be a helpful resource when it comes to boosting transparency. He said offering video live-streaming of council meetings would help.

    Anderson said the City needs to better utilize available technologies to reach its constituents. That includes live-streaming meetings, she said.

    Baird said Finch will help, too, with transparency and communication, but, he added, not every conversation can be discussed immediately in public all the time. He added that communication goes both ways. “People need to communicate with us, too, they have to let us know,” Baird noted.

    Hibma said communication is not “what you put out but what people take in” and that everyone does that differently. She said the council has to take responsibility when people say they’re not communicating enough. She, too, is a fan of live-streaming meetings, having an updated City website or even producing a City newsletter. “Remember, we work for the people,” Hibma said.

    Palmer said that, if elected, “I guarantee you’ll get transparency from me. I wouldn’t be running if I was happy.”

    Melbye said whether it’s between the council and community, or the council and CHEDA or the Chamber of Commerce, it’s “not a well-oiled machine” right now. He said it will always be a challenge to get every possible piece of useful information appropriately disseminated to the public.

Keeping their constituents informed

    Fee said he’d explore the creation of a Ward 1 Facebook page.

    Jerde said she’d consider forming a mailing list, and said she might start periodic “Coffee with Kristie” events. “It’s about relationships,” she said.

    Royal said communication and accountability should start with Finch and that she should be the “face of the community” that keeps things “on-point.” Too many things get lost, he said, when the City and council and other entities are “giving out different messages.”

    Kresl said his door is always open and his contact information is “all out there.” He noted that a Ward 5 Facebook page was previously created.

    Anderson said it could be as simple as sitting down and “sharing a pizza with someone” and talking about what’s going on.

    Baird said that as an at-large council member, it’s his responsibility to work with the whole community and every ward.

    Hibma said everyone gathers information differently, so the City and council need to provide that information in a variety of ways.

    Palmer said many people are too busy to spend a lot of time trying to find out information so they want it readily available. He said the City and council need public feedback. Palmer added that he’s not a “big Facebook person,” but that if he’s elected, “I’d have to be.”

    Melbye said the best thing council members can do is be “out there” and visible in the community, whether it’s at football games or the grocery store. “People will stop you and let you know how you’re doing, whether it’s how bad you’re doing or what they’d like to see,” he said, adding that he has a history of always returning phone messages. “People want to hear from you personally,” Melbye said.

Relocating town square, the proposed multi-use apartment/retail development downtown, and the project at the old Cathedral

    Fee said nothing should be off the table if a developer is willing to invest $7 million in Crookston. The council at this point, he said, is keeping its options open until it has more information on the scope of the development. He said the council should be willing to look at the Cathedral redevelopment project if it’s feasible and there is money to operate it when the project is finished.

    Jerde said there’s a lot of “ambiguity” at this moment with the proposed multi-use development and that council needs more information, especially on the local cost. The same goes for the Cathedral project, she said. “If it’s fiscally responsible and a good fit, I’d consider it,” Jerde said.

    Royal said he’s not for or against the proposed multi-use project at this point, but he has questions. He’s not a fan of having town square located on land the City doesn’t own. “These are great things, but at what cost?” he said, adding that he’s not for the project at the old Cathedral because a community center already exists, and it’s Crookston Sports Center.

    Kresl said more conversations need to be had, and will be had. He likes the current town square and said the City should maybe consider buying the property. He said it’s likely the multi-use development proposal needs to be changed somewhat, but that anything that makes downtown more appealing is worth considering. “It’s the heartbeat of your city,” Kresl said.

    Anderson said she needs more information on risks and long-term sustainability before forming a concrete opinion. The same goes for the Cathedral project, she said. “It’s a beautiful building and it would be really cool to see it get utilized, but at what cost,” Anderson wondered.

    Baird noted that the City doesn’t currently own the current town square site, but that it does own the land across from the former American Legion building near the river, which he said would be a good spot for a town square. He said he’s not in favor of putting a business in the first-floor space of the proposed apartment building if it hurts other existing businesses or results in another empty space downtown. “But a skating rink or an amphitheater would be great,” Baird said.

    Hibma said “looking from the outside in, there’s not a ton of information out there” on the proposed development project. People need to consider the opportunity and not just the problems, she said. “What’s best for Crookston?” she said. “It’s hard to say no to people who want to invest in our community, but you also have to look at our empty buildings.” She said the council would be wise to consider the old Cathedral as a community center-type of space if a project is doable.

    Palmer said he doesn’t like to talk about things he knows nothing about, but he said he’d have to be convinced that any project is in the best interests of Crookston taxpayers.

    Melbye, who had a lead role in the creation of the current town square and construction of the red barn, said the City’s lease of the land is long-term and the cost is reasonable. He said the location is good in that it’s a bit removed from the highway but is still visible.

Closing statements

    Fee said he has a passion for Crookston and serving the community.

    Jerde said she is a champion of economic development, communication, transparency and teamwork.

    Royal said the City’s leaders need to “sell the community better” by touting things like its “world-class” hospital and industries. “We have a lot of good things, but we need to get our messaging out there,” he said.

    Kresl said he’s doing his best to move Crookston forward and help it grow and be a better place to live.

    Anderson said she sees tremendous potential in the community, and the fact that a business like Heroes Rise Coffee Company has chosen Crookston to expand shows that others see Crookston’s potential, too. “I see a revitalized atmosphere and energy,” Anderson said, citing the greatly expanded Ox Cart Days Festival as an example of what local people can accomplish.

    Baird said he, like others, is passionate about Crookston. “We’ll have our ups and downs, but we’ll all be in it together,” he said.

    Hibma said no one can continue to do the same thing over and over again and expect change. “You have to look at things differently and change,” she said. “I believe I am that person.”

    Palmer said if people like the way things are going right now, they should vote for the incumbent. “If you don’t, then vote in the new guy,” he said.

    Melbye said everyone on the stage is “putting themselves out there” and that it’s good to be in a community where “people are willing to step up.”

Crookston City Council candidates Jake Fee and Kristie Jerde (Ward 1), Clayton Briggs and Blake Royal (Ward 3), Joe Kresl, Casey Anderson and Marc Palmer (Ward 5), Bobby Baird, Wayne Melbye, and Morgan Hibma (At-Large)