East Grand Forks Mayor Steve Gander shared his vision for improving the quality of life for city residents Wednesday during his third State of the City address.

Gander outlined three goals-leveraging more state dollars, finding a place for a south-end bridge and improving Lafave Park on the Greenway, with the hope of attracting the Minnesota Governor's 2021 Fishing Opener.

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Gander described, over lunch in the East Grand Forks Civic Center, the potential the city has to accomplish all three items in the upcoming year. He also highlighted some of the strides the city has made to enhance the quality of life for residents, along with where there's still room for improvement.

Funding infrastructure, reconstruction

Gander and other city leaders have visited St. Paul twice to lobby support for some changes to the state's formula for Local Government Aid, dollars the Minnesota Legislature sets aside each year from its general fund to help local governments pay their operational costs.

Eligible cities receive funding based on several factors, including age of infrastructure, property values, strength of tax base and a city's pre-1940 housing.

The city lost much of its pre-1940 housing in the 1997 flood, which is why Gander and others are asking the Legislature to amend its formula and instead consider the city's pre-1970 housing.

This would provide further property tax relief to residents and facilitate consistent, predictable budgeting, according to Gander.

Additionally, Gander said he has heard from several city department heads that it's time to update the city's policy for special assessments on street reconstruction.

"We have a great development policy for new subdivisions, but we're lacking a functional policy for replacing streets when they reach the end of their lifespan," Gander said. "We have streets that are in need of replacement right now, and we do not have an effective policy to get that done."

Working with Grand Forks

Four years ago, East Grand Forks agreed to work with the city of Grand Forks on constructing a wastewater interconnect that would transport the Minnesota city's sewage to Grand Forks waste ponds near the airport.

During Gander's speech, city officials from both sides of the river who worked on the project joined him on stage to receive a plaque deeming their work the 2018 "project of the year" by the City Engineers Association in Minnesota.

"The ongoing cooperation and team effort continues today, as staff on both sides of the (interconnect) communicate daily," said East Grand Forks City Engineer Steve Emery.

Gander said he hopes for the same cooperation when determining the location for a south-end bridge between the two cities.

In December, both city councils approved recommendations from the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a locally and federally funded transportation agency serving both cities, to build a neighborhood bridge on 32nd Avenue South in Grand Forks, along with a county bridge on Merrifield Road in Grand Forks County. The MPO has been updating its recommendations every five years since the early 2000s, when it first started researching a south-end bridge.

Since the December votes, some neighbors living near the proposed 32nd Avenue South location have spoken out against the MPO's recommendations, rallying support instead for a bridge on Merrifield where there's less development.

Gander said earlier this year it's time to agree on a location, secure funding and create a shovel-ready plan that will ultimately alleviate traffic congestion near the cities' three north-end bridges.

"We've been focusing persistent on that goal. We've done more than place that bridge on a long range plan, we're following up with action," said Gander. Most recently, both cities held a joint council meeting to discuss the issue.

"This will be another test of the level of cooperation we have with Grand Forks," Gander said.

Opportunities in parks and rec

Gander recalled that last year the East Grand Forks pool was "a bit of a thorn in the flesh" for him, after the pool broke down in 2017.

After the pool construction company responsible for the breakdown agreed in February to pay the city $45,157 for repairs and legal fees, Gander said it has become "a really positive thing." In 2018, staff counted 14,152 pool patrons, meaning on average the pool received 237 attendees a day. The highest number of patrons at the pool on a single day was 510.

"Now we have a baseline for future comparison," Gander said. Parks and Recreation staff plan to grow that attendance with classes and themed pool parties, he said.

It will also consider improvements to public arenas for hockey, after a decision from the Environmental Protection Agency to no longer allow U.S. production or imports of R-22, the refrigerant East Grand Forks uses to maintain ice in its arenas.

Perhaps the largest advantage Parks and Recreation plan to take advantage of is a push to land the Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener in 2021, the application for which is due in November 2019. Part of that effort will include fully developing LaFave Park.

"We have neglected that little patch between the dam and the railroad bridge, kind of up to the Sorlie Bridge," Gander said. "It really has the potential to be a nice part of our Greenway and a nice part of our community."