By Laura Simmons
Although the Grand Forks City Council voted 5-0 February 6 to cancel Fufeng, there are still unresolved issues.
The Chinese-owned corn mill processing plant Fufeng set off national security concerns for being about 12 miles from Grand Forks Air Force base. The Department of the Air Force in Washington D.C. sent a letter to North Dakota senators on January 27 saying Fufeng “presents a significant threat to national security.”
“We believe the city should discontinue the Fufeng project and instead we should work together to find an American company to develop the agriculture project,” Senators John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer wrote in a joint statement on January 31.
On the same day, Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski wrote that although the City Council can refuse to connect industrial infrastructure and deny building permits, Fufeng will still legally own the land.
Despite citizens at the City Council meeting saying they were relieved Fufeng is canceled, they also voiced their discontent. Citizens called for the deannexation of land, the resignation of City Council members and for the City Council to start taking responsibility.
In June of 2022, the Grand Forks City Council voted to annex part of Falconer Township, which included Fufeng. Fufeng wanted to be annexed so it would have access to city infrastructure. However, many business owners didn’t want to be annexed because of the 400% to 600% increase in taxes.
Falconer Township resident Frank Matejcek said the land was only annexed to provide infrastructure to Fufeng. He said the other businesses are self-sufficient, having their own water, sewer and fire protection.
“[The businesses] had everything they needed,” Matejcek said. “They didn't need to be in the city. And they didn't need city services.”
One such city service is the stormwater retention pond. In an interview with the High Plains Reader on November 10, 2022, City Administrator Todd Feland said the city was building the stormwater pond to serve Fufeng and the annexed commercial industrial area.
However, in a recent interview Feland said the pond is being built to serve the domestic needs of the land Fufeng now owns as well as the commercial industrial area.
“We were intending to serve the industrial, wastewater flow of the Fufeng site, or future industrial, with an industrial pump station,” Feland said. “We would separate the larger volume of industrial wastes with an alternative pump station.”
Now that Fufeng will not be moving forward, citizens at the City Council meeting demanded the city deannex the land.
City Administrator Todd Feland said he thinks deannexation will be a topic at the next City Council meeting.
“One of the challenges we have with deannexation [is] there are major property owners in that area that wanted annexation because they wanted the infrastructure so that they could further develop their property,” Feland said.
Feland then broke down the infrastructure costs for the annexed land. Feland said the city is paying for 100% of the sanitary sewer pump station and collection system, 80% to 100% of the transportation network and 40% of the potable water with the State of North Dakota covering the remaining 60%. Therefore, residents are left to cover 50% of the cost of the stormwater pond.
“In all cases, the city tried to look at ways that we could maximize the city's cost share above and beyond what we normally do with city developments,” Feland said.
City Council President Dana Sande said he thinks the business owners are getting a good deal. He said, given their location, their land would have been annexed anyway down the road. In this situation, the residents are only paying a fraction of the infrastructure costs because of Fufeng, according to Sande.
“From my point of view, they're getting the deal of a lifetime,” Sande said. “From their point of view they’re pissed because they have to pay for the stormwater plant because they didn't want to be annexed in the first place.”
Citizens at the City Council meeting criticized the City Council for its handling of Fufeng. They said the City Council should have listened to the citizens and North Dakota senators who were skeptical of Fufeng from the beginning.
Grand Forks citizen Ben Grzadzielewski said he is annoyed by the City Council’s lack of accountability.
“[The citizens are] the ones who made it happen at the end of the day, and so to take that away from the people is very, very dangerous because it creates a story that the City Council did everything right,” Grzadzielewski said. “So you can trust [them] to do what's best, which is completely false in this case. I can see a world where that type of story would convince people to sit back and let the government do everything that they need to because they're going to handle it in the best way possible, which we saw that didn't happen here. Not even close.”
Grzadzielewski also said the City Council’s current plan to bring in a different business to replace Fufeng hinges on the city getting the land back from Fufeng.
“[Fufeng has] all the property rights to their land,” Feland said. “So I don't think there's anything specific the city can do to take the land away.”
However, ND State House Bill 1503, which would prevent the foreign ownership of land, could change that if passed.
Feland said he has not spoken with Fufeng and does not know what their next plan is.
The High Plains Reader called Fufeng USA’s Chief Operating Officer Eric Chutorash multiple times for comment. Chutorash did not respond.
Matejcek said he went to a Base Retention and Investment Committee, or BRIC, meeting on February 8. BRIC is composed of Grand Forks community members and the Grand Forks Air Force Base to develop economic diversification strategies.
Matejcek said it wasn’t right for the city to jeopardize the Air Force Base with Fufeng.
“It's pretty clear the Air Force was not happy with the situation here in Grand Forks,” Matejcek said. “They are not happy with the city trying to backpedal. The city is trying to lay blame. The city is trying to ask questions of the Air Force. Trying to cover themselves. There's been a trust loss between the Air Force Base in Grand Forks and we need to build that back.”
Feland said he thinks the City Council can use Fufeng as a learning experience. He said they learned the importance of development agreements. Because of the development agreement, the city did not lose any money, according to Sande. Feland said the city also learned to engage the City Council and policy makers sooner rather than later.
“We could always do things better and differently, but I think we did the very best we could, under all the circumstances,” Feland said.
The City of Grand Forks was planning certain infrastructure, such as a wastewater treatment plant and a natural gas line, to help accommodate Fufeng. Feland said the city will continue its plans to renew and expand the wastewater treatment plant. He said it’s about 20 years old and the city wants it to support Grand Forks for the next 20 to 30 years. But, it won’t be expanding as much as previously planned. Feland said the city will most likely not install a natural gas line as that was mostly for Fufeng.
At the City Council meeting, citizens asked Bochenski, Sande, Feland, City Attorney Daniel Gaustad and Council Member Bret Weber to resign. Sande received especially vehement requests for resignation.
Sande said he won’t be resigning. He said for every person that asked him to resign, he’s received dozens of people thanking him for what he does.
“We're part-time volunteer people that are doing the best we can,” Sande said. “Although we get scrutinized as if we're full-time highly paid members, we're not. We're mostly volunteering our time just trying to do the best for our community.”
Sande said he did listen to the wishes of the citizens. He said he doesn’t believe the anti-Fufeng citizens were in the majority. Instead, Sande said he heard citizens, especially business owners, saying they want community growth.
Sande said in his opinion the anti-Fufeng movement was started by four or five citizens in Falconer Township that didn’t want to live near the Fufeng plant. He said he thinks if another company comes, the same people will come up with reasons to oppose it.
“There's nothing in this for me,” Sande said. “That plant wouldn't change my life one iota. However, it would have raised the standard of living for the most vulnerable people in our community that desperately need the hand up.”
Matejcek said there’s more being investigated.
“There’s more to come,” Matejcek said.
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