East Grand Forks city administrators plan to look for a second – and possibly third – consultant to help with the city’s plan to upgrade several of its parks facilities, including a pair of aging ice arenas.

City Council members on Tuesday instructed Parks and Recreation Superintendent Reid Huttunen to put together a formal call for construction firms interested in helping the city during the lead-up to a sales tax referendum that would pay for at least part of a slew of facilities upgrades and, possibly, help the city raise and organize private donations to subsidize them. City leaders aren’t sure if a single firm could handle both duties, which means they could ultimately hire one for “pre-referendum” work and another for fundraising help.

“We’ve got a future project here that has a very fluid scope and a very fluid timeline,” City Council member Brian Larson said. “I think it’s in our best interest to contract with a construction manager or potentially a construction manager at risk-type contract for only pre-referendum services to help us to provide accurate cost estimates for all the different scenarios we’re interested in, keep track of construction cost escalation as we go through this process, and really keep us in check, here, as we go through this multi-year effort.”

The city already hired JLG, a local architecture firm, to work on “pre-design” and pre-referendum work. But that contract, Huttunen told the Herald, is for high-level design on the proposed facility upgrades, as well as help gauging how city residents feel about each. Whatever agreement the city could reach with a construction firm would be to put together more concrete construction costs. The JLG contract will cost the city government $60,000, but only if the sales tax upon which the parks and rec projects’ funding hinges is approved by East Grand Forks voters.

The projects for which the city will look for sales tax financing, and how far that money will go, are up in the air. At present, East Grand Forks leaders have narrowed their focus to a $13.42 million list of upgrades to the ballfields at Stauss Park plus more urgent fixes at the Civic Center and VFW Memorial Arena, all of which could theoretically be paid for by a 1% tax on the sale of certain goods and services within city limits.

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Minnesota law requires new sales taxes to be approved by the Legislature as well as local voters. Council members asked lawmakers to approve a $15 million slate of upgrades paid for with a 1% sales tax, but that plan sputtered in St. Paul, where senators and representatives quickly shifted their focus to COVID-19 relief last spring. The new, tentative date for a citywide vote on that plan is November 2022, but that's still contingent on council members and legislators giving the OK on the proposal beforehand.

East Grand Forks staff and officials opened that civic can of worms in the summer of 2019, noting that the Civic Center and VFW’s ice plants still use r22, a refrigerant that is now illegal to manufacture or import into the United States. That means repairs to the rinks’ ice systems are set to be increasingly costly as supplies of the refrigerant dwindle.

In related news, council members:

  • Informally agreed to re-up a three-year contract with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to operate Sherlock Campground, which sits in the Red River State Recreation Area. The new agreement is fundamentally the same as prior ones, even after attendance plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic. In a nutshell, the state owns the campgrounds and reimburses the city for running them. Both governments split the campgrounds’ revenue each year.
  • Scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 6, a “visioning session” to re-evaluate, in broad terms, the city’s goals and long-term plans. Council members and city staff have such a session every few years – an earlier one included plans to repair the city’s ice arenas, for instance –but the one next month will include a lengthy recap of the city’s actions during the pandemic.

  • Were briefed on a virtual “legislative day” on Wednesday, Jan. 26, where city leaders will have a chance to lobby state legislators and hear a preview of the 2021 “legislative landscape,” among several other planned meetings. Organized by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, legislative days are typically held at the state Capitol in St. Paul, but the coronavirus pandemic pushed this year's onto the internet.