CROOKSTON WAYS & MEANS COMMITTEE, CHEDA BOARD HOLD JOINT MEETING AT CROOKSTON HIGH SCHOOL

A joint meeting of the Crookston City Council Ways & Means Committee and the Crookston Housing and Economic Development Authority (CHEDA) Board was held on Tuesday night at Crookston High School.

Mayor Dale Stainbrook opened the meeting by saying he’d requested a meeting between the city and CHEDA, such as this for the past three City of Crookston Mayor’s terms, so now that he was mayor he was finally putting it together.

Stainbrook began by talking about a lack of communication.  One issue he brought forward was that David Drown Associates, the firm hired by the City of Crookston to lead the search for the next City Administrator, had contacted CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth, and he had responded. “There was an email sent out from David Drown Associates about concerns with a potential candidate and his wife or significant other about our EDA director,” said Stainbrook. “And, also, there was another one that wanted to know, or concerns about why our mayor resigned and our past city administrator. I just felt that was council business. The email was sent to Mr. Hoiseth, and he responded to Liza (Donabauer) and said he had council approval to do this, and there was no council approval. That’s going to be an issue that we’ll work on down the road.”

Stainbrook also said one member of the Council couldn’t and shouldn’t speak for the entire Council if asked for permission. And that the questions from DDA should’ve been sent to the Council and answered by the Council.  Stainbrook also said he had a couple of areas to talk about, child care, the housing study, and business attraction/retention. On housing, Hoiseth noted that the Agassiz Townhomes, which he said was full with a waiting list, was spurred by the housing study and has been doing what it was intended to do by bringing 30 families to Crookston. He said, a downtown multi-use facility, like the one members of CHEDA, and a couple of City Council members attended a presentation about on June 15 (here), was another thing that was in that housing study, showing it was being used to drive discussion and not collecting dust on a shelf.

BUSINESS ATTRACTION/RETENTION
Councilman Steve Erickson said that the city had to look at what it could do for existing businesses after COVID with CARES Act money or some other funds. Stainbrook said he knows some of that money can be used for grants and thinks it would be best to do that through the Intermediary Relending Program. In contrast, Erickson said he believes a committee should be developed to get those funds to businesses in the community. Councilman Jake Fee said the committee should include Hoiseth, Interim City Administrator, and Finance Director Angel Weasner and members of the City Council and CHEDA.

Stainbrook said he didn’t think a committee was necessary but that’ he wanted to see the master plan off the shelf to do something. He added there were guidelines to be followed that Weasner had to go through and said businesses had to step up to the plate too. “Right now, it’s not premature, but I know there is guidelines, Angel is going through them,” said Stainbrook. “It is grants, but for businesses that need them. There is an application they need to fill out. There is a lot of money out there. Hopefully, we can get businesses to step up to the plate. Between fitness centers, salons, bars, restaurants, they all need help. Hopefully, we can spend the bulk of that dollar helping out the businesses in town. There are guidelines, federal guidelines, and typical, there is going to be some red tape with this. I haven’t seen the guidelines yet, and will be talking to Angel soon about them.”

Councilman Bobby Baird said Hoiseth and Stainbrook needed to go out to talk to businesses to see who is struggling. He said the people he knows of weren’t going to come up in public to say they were in trouble without having private conversations. CHEDA Board Chair Kurt Heldstab asked if there were guidelines that just had to be followed, and Councilman Tom Vedbraaten asked if all you had to do was show a loss. Weasner said the city couldn’t show loss revenue as a way to use funds and that there are 12 pages of guidelines she needed to go through. Fee reiterated that he believed a committee should get going as soon as possible, and Vedbraaten added that Weasner has a lot on her plate, so maybe this was something where working together was important.

CHILD CARE
On child care, Councilman Joe Kresl said a lot of avenues for child care had been explored and hadn’t been worked out before asking what else can be done to get something better to work.  Stainbrook questioned whether it was better to try to get family child care businesses started or a center. Fee said the biggest thing if there was a desire to help was to open the checkbook for funds.

Vedbraaten mentioned that the CHEDA board had allocated $50,000 for child care, and no one from the city or the community has come forward with trying to do anything to use that money for child care, saying you can’t force people to start a business.  He added that child care was about a lot more than money.

Kresl also noted that it took a unique passion to operate a child care and noted several child care operators are getting near retirement, which will amplify the issue. He said his mother-in-law is one of those and that child care is a difficult situation. “It’s definitely a struggle,” said Kresl. “My mother-in-law quit for a month with this COVID thing, and she has such a strong feeling for those young kids. It was killing her for that month not to be able to have the kids at her house. She did go back to it, but you have to be able to find the right person and the right place for it. It’s a very hard situation, and hopefully, we can figure it out.”

Community member Brian LaPlante also spoke about the need for child care, and Councilman Don Cavalier asked him what direction he’d go with child care. LaPlante said he felt that child care business at Washington School was the best option still.  And Vedbraaten noted that the school didn’t want to do that. Superintendent Jeremy Olson had said (here) during a community child care meeting held at Washington School in May 2019 that they didn’t’ have the space for that.

The question was also asked what was going on with Regal Academy and Heldstab summarized an update from the CHEDA Board meeting on May 19 (here) that because of some businesses had pulled back their commitments to the center due to financial struggles from COVID-19. He said the Regal Academy Board, who is now in charge of getting that child care center operational, felt they were no longer able to make a go of it at the Marywood facility east of town and were re-exploring other avenues.

LaPlante also said maybe it was time the city brought in other entities to help with child care.  Vedbraaten, Fee, and Hoiseth all stated that several people and organizations had been included, such as Representative Deb Kiel, Senator Mark Johnson, First Children’s Finance, Northwest Minnesota Foundation, Tri-Valley Opportunity Council, and Polk County Public Health. Hoiseth also said trying to find examples across the state of communities solving the child care crisis is few and far between. But did note that state and federal funding and assistance were starting to become more available due to the acute need in the state and around the country, so new possibilities may exist soon. 

Cynthia Ansbacher, DFL candidate for the Minnesota House in District 1B, said she noted that the CHEDA Board and Council were referring to child care often as that child care thing. She said that showed the child care issue has either been too complicated a topic for them or that it wasn’t on the top of their priority list.

COMMUNICATION
Baird noted communication was key but also lacking for the City of Crookston and CHEDA. He referenced how the Council was asked about having this meeting last week at the City Council meeting, but that Stainbrook hadn’t called CHEDA to see if it would work for them wasn’t right. He also said Hoiseth was there and didn’t say anything about having to check with the CHEDA Board to see if it would at work, noting that everyone has been at fault for the lack of communication.

Chris Boike, Crookston Public Library Director, said it seemed like there was a lack of trust and a lack of communication leading to a lack of transparency between the two entities. She said that if they couldn’t get on the same page and work together, how do things move forward and how does Crookston attract people to town.  

Some City Council members also felt like they needed more communication about what CHEDA was doing.  Kurt Heldstab asked if they were receiving the monthly reports from CHEDA by email, and those council members said yes, but they still felt like they weren’t getting information. It was also noted that the CHEDA Board minutes hadn’t been updated on their website since September 17, 2019 (here).

Councilman Dylane Klatt said he wanted the City Council and CHEDA to be seen in a better light, noting that he’d just learn that only approximately $140,000 of CHEDA’s budget comes from the city.  That makes up about 1.6 percent of the city’s nearly $9 million annual budget and roughly 7.4 percent of CHEDA’s annual budget of $1.9 million funded largely through state and federal housing programs. Hoiseth said that by statute, an EDA could work with businesses, but they don’t do that unilaterally, and City funds whether the budget or other funds go through the city.  Those additional funds would include the $350,000 the City Council approved for Community Invest, which was presented on a Ways & Means Committee meeting initially on October 23, 2018 (here), not by CHEDA. And which, when approved on November 15, 2018 (here) was noted by then-Councilman Stainbrook, would require line-item expenses so that the city knew where funds were going.

It was also asked if the City could get that money back. Weasner said the only way the City could ask for the $350,000 back was to request it back to lower taxes or have CHEDA give it back. Kremeier said CHEDA was working on avenues to leverage that money for community investment, looking for opportunities to turn a dollar into two through various funding programs. One such program with the USDA was discussed during the March 19 CHEDA meeting (here) for loan interest loans to help businesses with low-interest loans for COVID-19.

Stainbrook noted he didn’t understand why other city entities had to have budgets in by July for the next year, but the CHEDA budget didn’t come in until September or October. CHEDA Board member Leon Kremeier said they had to do a better job of ensuring that the website was updated correctly. He added that while the Council gets the CHEDA financials each month, the CHEDA Board could probably do a better job of getting its city budget request in earlier even though they have to wait to find out about other funds. “I think we have to make sure everything gets on the websites that we can get out there as far as minutes and everything,” said Kremeier. “As far as the financials, we have them every month at our CHEDA meeting. They all get approved, and then the budgets come in. We do our budget towards the end of the year. One thing I just found out is the part that is the city’s budget we might have to get that done in July, but we don’t get numbers from HUD until September, so we can’t do anything with that part of our budget until September or October when we start looking at that. So, that’s one thing we could do better is give that first part of the budget to the city that they’re responsible for and get that moving forward for the city.”

Erickson also took some of the blame for the lack of proper communication between CHEDA and the Council. He claimed that it was his responsibility along with Vedbraaten, as they are both CHEDA Board members as well, and Stainbrook, the CHEDA liaison, to keep the Council apprised of what work CHEDA is doing. “Normally, at the Ways & Means or a Council meeting, we are the liaisons and the board members,” said Erickson. “Dale is the liaison, I’m a board member, and so is Tom And we need to bring the report of what happened at our meeting to Council. I think the reason that kind of lacked is that we had 90 percent of the Council at the CHEDA board meeting, so there really was no need for a report. But, now with the COVID and different things, we’ve done Zoom, different ways, we need to get back into that. I take the blame for that because that is kind of my job as a board member on both a voting member on the CHEDA Board and a Council member to get the information out to everybody that needs it. So, I think it was a good meeting. Hopefully, it can answer some questions and fix some issues.”

Many of the Council members and CHEDA Board members felt that communication had improved between the two entities over the past six months. CHEDA Board Member Craig Morgan said he thought things had been better the past six months but said he had confidence in what the CHEDA Board was doing. He also asked if the starting points to a better understanding was to make sure there was an understanding of the CHEDA Charter first, a question that went unanswered. Joe Kresl said, “Me being somewhat new on the Council, I thought there has been pretty good transparency and working together already. I think like was said, the last few months the Council is working well together. CHEDA and the Council is working well together, and as long as we can keep that moving forward, I think it’s going to be a great thing.”

Heldstab also said communication had gotten better, but things need to get better still. “It’s gotten a lot better,” said Heldstab. “Personally, I always thought it was fairly good. Gotten better, as a matter of fact, like I mentioned at the meeting, Hoiseth and I have met with Dale and Angel going over some stuff. Working out real good, and then this COVID comes up, so we’re going to put that on the back burner. I think hopefully, the people in the audience understood where my board comes from. Communication – got to admit that no matter what – even in your own family between husband and wife, communication is a big deal. Getting better? Yep. And we’ll make it even better to move forward.”  

Stainbrook also noted that in the CHEDA bylaws it says an annual report would be given to the City Council and that it hadn’t happened in his memory. But Erickson noted he thought that was accomplished at the CHEDA Annual meeting, which is usually attended by the Council members. Heldstab, though, said he’d work with Stainbrook and Hoiseth to create an annual report format, and then get feedback from the Council. “At the end of the meeting, I said Dale I’m going to meet with you,” said Heldstab. “Give me those items that I’m going to follow up on for you. And I’m not pointing fingers, but Steve Erickson did mention that he’s on the Council and my CHEDA Board that maybe he has to get a better way to communicate to the Council at Ways & Means or something. As far as the annual report, I’m going to work with Craig. We’re going to dream up some type of format, present it, and let them pick and choose don’t want that, what this. It’s the same thing I did in business. I’d always lay out a program, let someone else look at it, and pick it apart, and I’d go back and fix it, so we’ll do that.”

Stainbrook also said he’d sit down with Helstab about a report, and hopefully, see one in future, although he said when that would be is a moving target. “I’m hoping we see one,” said Stainbrook. “I’m going to sit down with Kurt in the near future. It’s in their bylaws, and so, I know an annual report is a moving target, but it would be kind of nice to see what they’ve got on the docket. Maybe they kind of coincide it when we have a strategy session, and some of our ideas are involved with theirs and see what we can move forward with. If there is five ideas, get two done and move to the third. Like Leon said, a year from now, the bottom three of the five might not even be on the list the following year, so it’s going to be a continually moving target.”

Many members of both entities said that they hoped the meeting would lead to even better communication and an improved ability to work together, moving forward. Stainbrook said,  “I think it’s a starting point,” said Stainbrook. “I think there is going to be more discussion. I feel it can’t just be CHEDA, and it can’t just be the Council. We have to work as a team. So, I just feel we’re just going to have to have a couple more rounds down the road. Let’s see how this goes, but we have to be a team on this. We can’t be CHEDA on one side and Council on the other side. Hopefully, this is a good starting point, and we can move forward.”

Kremeier noted that the important thing was to be nimble, work together, and when things are done, let it be in the past. “I’ve been involved in many other communities in this, and nothing ever gets done if they’re not in alignment,” said Kremeier. “Things change so fast, and you have to be nimble to go with the changes. That’s where you need the alignment. And the vote, if something comes up on money or whatever it is, and it doesn’t go your way, but when you leave the room, you’re all for it. Many things haven’t gone my way over the years, but when I leave the room, I back it. That’s what we need to do instead of – eh, this isn’t a good thing – but just be all-in on it when the vote is done and move forward with it. And maybe, next time it will go your way. It’ changes, so you have to look at it year by year, month by month actually because it goes so quick.”

Klatt said he didn’t want to worry about what happened in the past but put the onus on improving communication on CHEDA, not members of the City Council. “I don’t think the council needs to communicate,” said Klatt. “I think CHEDA needs to communicate with us a little better. I think we both need to communicate with each other, but I think right now, there is a lot of people in our community that have a lot of questions about CHEDA. What my job is, is to try to figure out those answers. Hopefully, after tonight and building those relationships, we can start doing that.”

Alicia Qualley noted towards the end of the meeting that she felt like the Council members wanted to work towards approvement but felt like she got more of – we’re great and do great – from the CHEDA members, saying hearing about wanting to improve would’ve been nicer across the board. Stainbrook closed the meeting by talking about negativity in the community. He stated that people leave towns for many reasons, but local politics shouldn’t be one of them, and they shouldn’t be a deterrent for people to come to Crookston.

The raw audio recording of the meeting is below.  We used a recorder in the crowd to get the audio so the quality isn’t great.