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City leaders will vote on Herald building Monday; some disagree with decision

Jenna Watson / Grand Forks Herald

As Grand Forks city leaders close in on purchasing the Herald building, a pair of developers who had originally offered to buy the building themselves and lease space to the city remain hopeful the city will reconsider.

“We’re still interested in buying the building and renting it to the city,” said developer Mike Kuntz, co-founder of Icon Architects in Grand Forks. “They’re considering another path, currently. We still have interest in doing what we assembled to do.”

The Grand Forks Jobs Development Authority plans to vote Monday night on a recommendation from its advisory Growth Fund Committee to buy the Herald building for $2.75 million from the Herald’s parent company, Forum Communications.

The purchase would only be for the building, and not the newspaper business itself. The Herald’s newspaper staff remains in the building and will remain there as renters for the foreseeable future, according to Publisher Korrie Wenzel.

Kuntz made Forum Communications Co. an offer with Craig Tweten of Community Contractors last May, on the condition the group could find tenants to lease space not already occupied by Herald staff and the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. Kuntz and Tweten were responsible for attracting a branch of the Grand Forks Public School District, which moved students into the second floor of the Herald building earlier this year.

Kuntz said he was surprised to learn from a Herald article in February that city leaders were making an offer on the building, since he and Tweten had been courting the city as a tenant.

“We’re still hopeful. We’re trying to work some things out in the background with them,” he said. “(We’re) still sharing our interest in owning and renting to them. And also, we had a bunch of work and intellectual property we put into the project. We want to be fairly compensated for those efforts, whether we buy (the Herald building) or they buy it.”

Grand Forks City Administrator Todd Feland said he doesn’t see the city agreeing to rent space from Kuntz and Tweten any time soon.

“I think the intent is to move ahead with the purchase of the building on Monday,” he said. “But that’s always determined on the night that something get approves, which is on Monday.”

Forum Communications Co. Director of Real Estate Development Paul Amundson said the company is just “go(ing) through the process” of selling the building.

“We had to go through the process, so that’s what were doing,” Amundson said. “Our intent to is to sell the building and focus on the newspaper."

According to Amundson, Kuntz and Tweten had canceled their purchase agreement with Forum Communications Co. last fall.

Kuntz said that he and Tweten simply hadn’t renewed their purchase agreement with Forum Communications Co. when it ran out toward the end of 2018.

Public response

Meanwhile, some say the JDA decision is happening too soon and with too little public discussion.

“There’s been very limited public input on this matter, and that’s disappointing,” said T.J. Nagel, a resident of Grand Forks. “This is a major purchase for us taxpayers. I’m really critical about it because all of a sudden it’s going to be voted on Monday, and us taxpayers don’t know anything about it. And that’s not right.”

Nagel spoke to the Grand Forks City Council about the purchase on Monday, April 8, after the matter was voted on during a meeting of the Grand Forks Growth Fund committee.

The JDA, which will vote on the purchase Monday night, is a decision-making entity separate from the Grand Forks City Council, but its membership includes all seven council members and the mayor, with council member Bret Weber serving as president. The JDA and Growth Fund Committee make decisions on the Grand Forks Growth Fund, which holds money for economic development across the city and region.

“That’s just like people agreeing to themselves. There’s no other people or outside interests,” Nagel said. “You’ve got the same people making the decision.”

Vern Sander, another Grand Forks resident, said the $2.75 million is only “half the story” when it comes to the Herald building’s actual cost.

“What’s the city going to pay for insurance and utilities, as far as the water, all of the electricity used in it, (or) to get the wifi?” said Sander. “They’re going to renovate the building (but) they don’t talk about that extra cost at all. All they ever mention is the purchasing price.”

The city plans to purchase the Herald building using the Growth Fund, which is made of sales tax dollars and rent the city collects from tenants occupying other properties the city owns. Feland said further maintenance and construction costs will also come out of the Growth Fund, and those purchases will be considered and voted on by the JDA.

The city also preliminarily agreed during its Growth Fund committee meeting to pay Forum Communications up to $80,000 for a wall and secondary office space recently built on the second floor of the building. The wall separates Herald staff from the Grand Forks Public School District.

The school district moved students into the building earlier this year, after signing a lease with a pair of developers who had offered to buy the Herald building before the city.

“Ultimately, I think the most uncomfortable part of it is that the city is going to own property that it leases to other people,” said Ryan Cunningham, a talk show host with KNOX Radio. “The city obviously owns some property, but the City Council has told us they don’t want to be in the business of owning property, and then they purchase property. ... If it is truly that unique situation then it is that unique situation, but I think taxpayers have a legitimate reason to be wary about a city that buys buildings.”

Weber, from the JDA and City Council, said earlier this week the city doesn’t want to own property and it’s actively working to divest most of its other properties.

Community space

In February, the Grand Forks Public Library Board and UND preliminarily agreed to be partners with the city in creating a collaborative space for the community on the first floor of the Herald building.

During a meeting with the library board a couple of months ago, Feland told members that space will complement several assets of the downtown area, including a new town square, Central High School and anywhere from 200 to 300 residential development units the city anticipates it will gain in the near future.

In December, UND President Mark Kennedy told the Herald such a space would be valuable for a number of college students living downtown.

“UND will be a good addition to downtown, with the Memorial Union being torn down,” said City Council President Dana Sande. “It’s a good opportunity for us to create study space for students.”

“If it’s going to be used a lot at any time, it’ll be next year,” said UND freshman Sofia Hansen.

Living on campus, she said even without Memorial Union there’s plenty of places to study. In Fargo, where Hansen had lived before where she entered college, she said coffee shops were a popular study space for students.

“There’s like 10 coffee shops that are just like small, quiet,” she said.

Several other UND students also suggested adding a coffee shop function to a public space, to draw in more students.

“Free food and coffee shops are a big plus,” said UND freshman Paige Kinsella.

“Snacks would probably draw people in for sure,” said third-year student Micheal Landsberger. “Doesn’t really matter if it’s just pretzels.”

Third-year student Nicole Nerchlewicz said the space could bring more students downtown, which she said already is a “fun environment and atmosphere.”

Hansen said it would be nice to have a place off campus where she could learn more about Grand Forks.

“I think it would be nice to get away from campus, because we’re always here,” she said.

Emily Allen

Allen joined the Grand Forks Herald to cover local government and politics May 2018. Call her at 701-780-1102, email her at eallen@gfherald.com or follow her on Twitter, @Emily_theHerald.

(701) 780-1102