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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Off to Area Voices

Hey gang, the City Beat has (reluctantly) moved to Area Voices. This site will continue but will not be updated. See you on the other side.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

UND Research Foundation says "no" to land

It looks like the UND Research Foundation has decided on a new location for its research park.

President Peter Alfonso said the foundation will build 19.5 acres on the west end of campus with a virtually free lease from UND. That means the foundation is turning down the city's offer of five acres of land for free and another 15 at the old land for $1.3 million.

As I wrote in my story today, it's not so much the money, which is substantial, as much as the control.

Alfonso said the foundation wants control of all 20 acres so it can do some detailed planning on the layout of the research park. The first phase only takes five acres but it has to be integrated with future phases, meaning the buildings and the parking lot have to be in just the right place. And the foundation can't do that if the city has veto power over what goes into the remaining 15 acres.

Well, that's the point for the city.

City Council member Eliot Glassheim, who's on the Growth Fund committee charged with these sort of deals, said the city wants to control what goes into the 20 acres because it still owns adjacent 57 acres adjacent that it needs to develop. If the foundation puts in some incompatible businesses, it could really chase away businesses that the city wants to attract.

My understanding is that the city would sell more land to the foundation as the research park grows. That gives the city a chance to vet what kinds of businesses the foundation puts in the park.

The weird thing, to me, is this: Alfonso mentioned something about there being advantages and disadvantages to both the west campus and the locations. He also mentioned that, originally, the foundation was just going to build on west campus until it got word that the city is interested in developing land.

I asked what the advantages and disadvantages were and he mentioned that the west campus location is easier for researchers to get to and therefore more attractive to businesses that are seeking new technology. Then he decided that he really didn't want to go into details about the advantages and disadvantages.

I explained that the reason I asked that question is I wanted to know why UND bothered with the location if west campus was so hot. To this, Alfonso said the foundation saw an opportunity to partner with the city.

Then I called Eliot and, as I was talking to him, it occurred to me that maybe the foundation needed the city for something. We kind of worked out that the city did bring one major advantage: a local match.

At the time the foundation began talking with the city, it was also seeking a grant from the state's Centers of Excellence program. But that program required local entities to put up a certain amount of funding to match.

Eliot said that he remembered the foundation wanting to price the five acres the city was willing to give up at something like $6 a square foot, for the purposes of the match. It was persuaded down to $3 a square foot, he said. But the thing is, even that is a tad higher than what the city was offering, which is $1.3 million, or $2 a square foot.

In other words, getting some kind of land commitment from the city might have made it easier to get the state grant. It didn't hurt either that the city also offered a $500,000 grant. Ultimately, the foundation got $3.5 million.

Now I didn't have time last night to run this theory through Alfonso, so I don't know if he has an explanation. I'm just going to assume it was all in good faith. Maybe the location is attractive because there's more room for expansion beyond the 20 acres. Maybe there's some internal UND dynamics that made the west campus land less attractive at an earlier time and Alfonso didn't want to talk about it.

But having the city's commitment no doubt helped the foundation get those grants.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Alerus Center budget, some other dull matters and one thing that will shock you at first

Note: This is another long one. I'm kinda burnt out so it's hard to write short.

What a let down. The City Beat made it to the Alerus Center today at 7:20 a.m. to hear the events center commission discuss its deficit budget with the City Council.

Two council members showed up. That was Curt Kreun, who's a member of the commission, and Council President Hal Gershman, who advocated for the Alerus Center back when he was a private citizen.

(The meeting was announced Monday afternoon so I suspect council members might not have had enough time to change their schedule. Eliot Glassheim, for example, had to be in Bismarck and Doug Christensen was scheduled to be in Fargo all week.)

Man, 7:20 a.m. is like the middle of the night when you have to report on the council meeting the night before and attend another council meeting on the side. So I was hoping for some excitement.

No cigar.

It was deadly dull except for that news about UND football looking for a new stadium. (Hahaha. Wipe the coffee from the computer screen. It's more like a wish list item. I'll talk about it below.)

Anyway, commission chairman Randy Newman reported that, yes, the budget calls for $141,000 loss and that's the fault of higher electric rates. And the center simply can't earn more revenue to offset that in a year, he said.

Curt and Hal didn't say much about that other than making some light suggestions. There wasn't a single decent quote to be found. No coherent overarching narrative. No central idea around which to build a lead paragraph.

It was so dull, I'm just going to do a bullet list:

* Remember when the Alerus Center Commission adopted the deficit budget in July? It was a fest of self-flagellation. They wanted to break even, but they couldn't and they wrung their hands over it. One of them, Brian Conneran, voted "no" because he thought labor costs were too high.

This time around, talking to council members, they were defensive. Hey, we might lose $140,000, one said, but the Civic Auditorium, which the Alerus Center replaced, used to lose $240,000 to $250,000 a year. Another reminded the council members of the humongo economic impact the center makes each year and the deficit pales in comparison. A UND study in April found the center brought $12.6 million in new economic activities to town.

* Most of the talk was about strategic issues, such as the ongoing contract negotiation with the Alerus Center's biggest tenant. UND wants something like $400,000 in improvements as it prepares to go to Division I. The center wants a really long contract not those itty-bitty three-year ones.

Then the discussion started to sound weird.

Randy was talking about how the "the center is a short-term solution to their (UND) long-term needs."

Commissioner Phil Harmeson, whose day job is as associate to the university president, said "we don't have a problem with the Alerus" but are doing really long-term planning.

Randy added that "15 to 20 years from now, football may not be part of the Alerus Center."


Phil explained that to get to UND's goal of being a major football powerhouse, it has to go to Division IA, the top of Division I. To do that, it has to average 15,000 attendees a game and to average that much, Harmeson said UND would need 30,000 to 40,000 at major games to make up for lower attendance at minor games. Right now, the center maxes out at 13,500, so there's no way that's gonna happen.

Hal thought maybe the city could modify the Alerus Center to add more seats. Maybe, "blow up the top of the building." Boy does that sound expensive.

* The other strategic issue is catering. Canad Inns had expressed interest in taking over and that's got the Alerus Center people freaking out. Catering is 20 percent of their revenue and the only part of the revenue that's really, really healthy.

I called a local Canad Inns official who, by company policy, can't be named. The poor guy went on the record and then heard from the bosses that that's a no-no, so I let him stay anonymous. Usually if they talk in public I ignore the policy and I'd do that here but the info I wanted didn't warrant it.

Anyway, my mole inside Canad said, yes, Canad intends to put in a proposal for it since the company will have food service at the hotel and the restaurants. Then he called back and clarified that Canad wants to be a good neighbor and wouldn't submit a proposal unless it was asked to. I told him that's just as well because Randy said he doesn't want to even negotiate that.

On a side note 1

The mole said Leo Ledohowski wants the hotel opened as early as late March 2007. The water park should open sometime after that but there's no clear timeframe yet.

On a side note 2

The city public information department either has to get its act together or city departments have got to tell them about meetings earlier.

The Alerus Center Commission meeting still wasn't on the weekly meeting list as of 9:52 a.m. Tuesday. That's about an hour after it was over.

I knew about the meeting because the Herald got a fax from the Alerus Center at 2:08 p.m. yesterday. But that doesn't help members of the public, who deserve to know even if none of them show up for these meetings.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Quickies: Moving date, Point Bridge

* I've decided to push back the move to Area Voices to, I don't know, Oct. 1. I'm waiting for news on the RSS feed plus I'm busy with important stuff.

* East Grand Forks' Point Bridge may open Sept. 13.

* The Alerus Center Commission will present its budget to the City Council at 7 a.m. tomorrow in the center's Eagle Room.

* If you're ever tempted to hoard gas when the price is low, like it is now...

* Coffee Guy parodies Marilyn Hagerty. He says Paulo's in East Grand Forks is closed and suggests a reason why.

* What the war has cost Grand Forks. Don't know if I should believe them but it's interesting research.

Update 12:02 p.m., 8/29/06: Guess I was wrong. The last day to move to Forum Communications' system isn't Oct. 1 any more. It's Sept. 5. So the last day at will probably be Sept. 1. The good news is there's word that RSS feed is close to ready.

* North Dakota quarter's being launched 10 a.m. tomorrow at the Bismarck Civic Center. I can't wait to get the Nodak coin in my hands. I've got just about one of each state quarter so far released in my vault.

Nevermind Pt. 2

The renewable energy ballot measure looks like it is out of trouble.

Grand Forks City Council members told city attorney Howard Swanson to fix the legal language and bring it back to them Sept. 5. They'll put the thing on the November ballot themselves.

Just in case there is some unforeseen bureaucratic cockup, the Citizens for Affordable Renewable Energy people said they'll still gather signatures for their least flawed petition, the one that said "City Council" instead of "City Commission." The council one only got 223 signatures and needed 446. The commission one got the rest.


Looks like the $200,000 for Grand Forks nonprofits has been saved by the nonprofit hero of the hour: Council member Eliot Glassheim. They all applauded him after the meeting.

Eliot seemed like he was destined by the lone dissenting vote on this one at the last few meetings when he was the only council member on the nonprofits' side. Council President Hal Gershman's idea of spending the $200,000 on streets and sewers in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods was pretty popular.

This would help poorer homeowners with special assessments, though, obviously, it would not help the even poorer people who depend on the nonprofits for aid.

Anyway, Eliot said he found a way to make everybody's dreams come true. The nonprofits would get to keep their money and Hal would get his special assessment subsidy.

Actually, Eliot said it was finance director John Schmisek whose monetary mojo saved the day. John mentioned some rainy day money in the infrastructure fund that nobody remembered. It looks like there's enough for a $200,000 special assessment subsidy fund, which means the nonprofit money isn't needed.

I bet the nonprofits wished they didn't have to kick and scream for this to come about.

By the way, the infrastructure fund is that 30 percent of the 1-cent city sales tax used for major road projects. Eliot said there's some extra after scheduled projects are paid for.

Update 9 a.m., 8/29/06: Council member Curt Kreun set me straight today about who it was that really pushed for that $200,000 cut. It wasn't Hal, he said, but him. Hal's contribution was the suggestion that nonprofits consolidate to save money. But I gave him credit for both pieces because he was the one who introduced both before the council.

Curt said his rationale for seeking street and sewer funding for lower income homeowners was that the infrastructure in these neighborhoods needed repair but people couldn't afford it so they kept protesting it out.

That's a slightly different dynamic because the poor homeowners aren't being compelled to pay crippling special assessments that would force them out of their homes.

Social services cuts contemplated

That plan by the Grand Forks City Council to divert $200,000 from social services to property tax relief is back for discussion tonight.

Looks like the City Beat led you all astray by a few hundred grands. I thought grants to nonprofits were a lot higher than they would really be, about $1.2 million. But that's not true. (Why didn't anybody correct me? Dang it!)

The total allocation of federal Community Development Block Grants is $1.2 million but nonprofits were only going to get $487,000. That was the plan recommended by the Citizens Advisory Committee, which advises the council on CDBG allocations. The council's proposed $200,000 cut represents 41 percent of that funding.

Here's how the $1.5 million CDBG will really be allocated (note that it's only $1.2 million after administration costs are taken out):

Suggested allocationCitizens Advisory CommitteeCity Council
Social services (nonprofits)$200,000$150,000
Rent assistance$250,000$250,000
Housing rehab$500,000$500,000
Infrastructure (nonprofits)$287,000$137,000
Streets and sewers$0$200,000

Since I'm such a fiend when it comes to data, I decided to do a quick comparison of needs in Grand Forks compared to other cities in North Dakota.

Percent of families below poverty line

CityAll familiesFamilies with female head of household, no husband
1) Grand Forks9.333.8
2) Minot8.833.5
3) Fargo6.623.1
4) Bismarck5.727.0

Hey, we're No. 1! But we knew that, didn't we?

Ooh, I got an idea! Wouldn't it be cool to compare social service funding per impoverished resident? Yeah, way cool.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Alternative energy ballot measure in trouble

Remember that ballot measure that called for Grand Forks to get a fifth of its electricity from renewable resources?

Citizens for Affordable Renewable Energy turned in 4,108 signatures the other day and city finance director John Schmisek certified the sigs. Then he did a double-take. Most of the sigs were on petitions that called for action by the "City Commission." That's something that exists in Fargo but not here in Grand Forks. Ours is called "City Council."

Small technical glitch but there's a possibility the signatures would be thrown out. Assistant city attorney John Warcup is doing research and will make a ruling Monday.

If he says "City Commission" is close but not close enough, it would leave CARE with only 223 sigs, which is exactly half of what they need to get on the November ballot. County auditor Debbie Nelson said she needs those signatures certified and turned into her office by 4 p.m. Sept. 8. That means Schmisek will need a few days before that to vet the signatures. I'd say CARE has about two weeks or so. That just might be enough time.

If not, the City Council could just heed the will 4,108 residents and put the measure on the ballot itself.

I see Dakota got to this story a few hours before I did and had an interview with Council member Eliot Glassheim to boot. Eliot says the council shouldn't be so small-minded as to reject the ballot for technical reasons.

Quickies: EGF city admin update, Airlines suck

* The search for a new city administrator in East Grand Forks continues. Consultants were supposed to come back a few weeks ago with a list of finalists but Michelle Hall, the person in admin that's overseeing the process, says they haven't. Apparently those bots at WDAZ have been calling her everyday to get their hands on the list of finalists. Bahahaha.

Anyway, the news is the consultants are supposed to come and update the council at its 5 p.m. work session on Monday. Michelle says they won't have a finalist list then either.

Looks like I have to be a bot, too.

* Gee, we're not alone. "Airlines trying to save money and return to profitability have cut flights and replaced big planes with ones that have fewer seats on routes serving small and midsize cities. That's led to higher fares, fewer flight options or longer drives to hub airports for travelers and a reversal of fortunes for regional airports that until this year were seeing a surge in passengers."

I'm taking revenge on Northwest by flying to Europe on another airline, but they all suck so what's the use? I blame Osama and I'm gonna keep flying or the terrorists will win.

* Frenchies unite. I went one year and had the best pork pie ever.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Council pay hike update: There is none

A reader wrote in today asking whatever happened to that proposal Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown made earlier this year to raise the pay for the City Council as a way to encourage all socio-economic groups to participate in the political process.

Since I was already calling Council President Hal Gershman about the 2,700-square-foot addition to his southend Happy Harry's Bottle Shop, I decided to ask him for an update.

Hal said that there has been no discussion of the issue since, not even during the budget process. "It doesn't seem to be an issue with council members," he said. "Not one council member has brought it up to me. Nobody's in it for the money."

The current monthly pay is $400 for council members and $2,000 for the mayor. City law says the pay rate is set by council resolution, which doesn't require a public reading like ordinances.

The mayor's goal was to increase diversity on the council. The time requirement for council members makes elected office difficult for those that have more than one job or not enough time to balance home life and work life with political life.

The danger, as Hal has pointed out, is if the pay hike is too high, Grand Forks will end up with a professional political class.

Still, even if one doubles the $400 pay, as was suggested at one point, it'd still be a yearly pay of $9,600. That's not professional pay. It's $4.62 an hour. I think I made more at McDonald's the summer of my freshman year in college.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

GF cops, firefighters, mosquito killers could get $5.8 million building

Grand Forks City Council members have disparaged it as too costly for cost-cutting times such as these, but it looks like the city's public safety gang could be getting its $5.8 million training center after all.

The Service/Safety Standby Committee recommended the council fund it.

It's one of those decisions that's gotta be full of conflict for a fiscal hawk, which I think many council members have become, if not by nature then by public pressure. On the one hand, you want to cut taxes as much as you can. On the other, public safety is a core government function and you definitely want more of it. I'm counting mosquito control as public safety here because besides letting us enjoy our summers, they're keeping the West Nile Virus vector at bay.

Note that existing funds would likely pay for the training center. If the center were not built, the city could cut more taxes. So the argument here isn't whether taxpayers will pay more but whether they could pay less.

Anyway, I see that Council member Art Bakken, who said he's a fiscal hawk, took a pretty firm stance for public safety even though his colleagues were sort of wringing their hands. "I don't think any citizen in Grand Forks will complain about police, fire or mosquito control," he said. "If we're going to spend money on anything, if this doesn't qualify, I don't know what will."

I'm starting to like this guy more and more. He doesn't pontificate much, which means shorter council meetings, but when he says something, it's a pretty good, meaningful quote.

Still, even with public safety, you've gotta do some cost benefit analysis, which Council member Curt Kreun tried to do with the department heads.

There's a nice Powerpoint presentation by architect Lonnie Laffen that you can download here. (I'm running out of room on the Geocities storage site so I'm deleting that letter the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa got from Gov. John Hoeven from way back when. Anyone know a place to park all this material? Can't seem to do it on

To summarize what the department heads said, here's what the city would get for $5.8 million:

* A modern facility to store mosquito control chemicals. The current facility is rented and rent is going way up. It doesn't have fire sprinklers or good security. And worse of all, it doesn't have a containment system to keep spills from getting out of hand.

* Police and firefighters wouldn't have to go out of town to train as they do now. Chief John Packett said 10 to 15 percent of the cop force is away on training at any one time. We're talking about things like SWAT training.

Firefighters have a fire tower to rappel off of but Chief Pete O'Neill said the thing is 30 years old and not safe.

* Police and firefighters from around the region would get better training with a nearby facility. This would help pay for the center since users would pay a user fee.

* A new cop shop and fire station in the Industrial Park, which isn't all that close to existing stations.

* An empty Civic Center, where a lot of the public safety equipment is stored. The city is trying to attract a tenant for the center.

Landfill lawsuit will go on

It looks like the City Beat can look forward to many fun hours at Grand Forks District Court this December.

Judge Joel Medd recently denied Turtle River Township's motion to dismiss the city of Grand Forks' appeal. The city wants the judge to overturn the township board of supervisor's decision not to allow the city to build a landfill in township land.

Township attorney Al Boucher said back in mid-July that the city didn't correctly file its appeal because it didn't use the word "appeal" anywhere in its filing. Since the court only has appellate jurisdiction, it has no jurisdiction over the city's non-appeal.

I didn't roll my eyes or anything but Al read my thoughts. He told me later that it may sound like a technicality but these things have to be done correctly. If the statute of limitation on a crime is, say, six years, he said, and charges are filed on the first day of the seventh year, they wouldn't stick. Same situation here.

The city's attorney Ron Fischer said state law doesn't define what an appeal is. By taking the township to an appellate court and asking the court to overturn the city's decision, he argued, he's essentially filing an appeal.

He noted that state law doesn't say what an appeal has to look like.

Medd agreed with Fischer. The city's appeal doesn't say "appeal" so the substance of it makes it an appeal.

The township is free to appeal Medd's decision but Boucher doesn't know if that will happen yet. The question is, will he put the word "appeal" at the top or not?

Moving to Area Voices

As much as I hate to do it, the City Beat is gonna have to go over to Area Voices, owned by our overlords at Forum Communications.

I'm tentatively making the moving date Sept. 1.

I know how you guys feel about Area Voices so here's the deal: Tell me why you think it sucks and I'll look into ways to change it. We're not real sure how much control we'll have but I'm hoping that as a part of the Forum, we'll get to muck around with the codes more than others would. Who knows...

Update 2:39 p.m., 8/24/06: Word is Fargo's working on the RSS feeds for us. Your complaints are being noted.