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Fufeng Group gets a big City Hall win — and looks poised to break ground

A timeline toward construction unfolds over the next few months. On March 7, the city is slated to approve major property tax breaks for the project, complementing similar incentives already

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Grand Forks City Hall
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GRAND FORKS – Fufeng Group looks almost certain to build in Grand Forks — so long as all the paperwork comes back clean.

The City Council approved a development agreement on Tuesday evening with a subsidiary of Fufeng Group, the Chinese agribusiness that’s long worked to bring a new corn-milling facility to Grand Forks. In recent months, it’s made for an extraordinary debate, pitting the promise of hundreds of new jobs against anxieties about the plant’s smell, its shifts in local traffic and its links to an international rival.

But the final, 5-1 vote marks the beginning of a new chapter for those plans. With the development agreement approved, it’s on track for early, pre-construction work as soon as June.

And importantly, City Hall leaders say, it gives City Hall the tools to vet the project even more. Under the terms of the agreement, Mayor Brandon Bochenski has previously said, studies on the plant’s smell and its traffic impacts can be refunded by Fufeng Group under escape clauses in Tuesday evening’s contract.

“I’m not necessarily a yes. But passing the development agreement is a way to push the project through and get answers to questions,” said City Council member Ken Vein, who voted to back the project.

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Tuesday’s vote approved about $1.5 million of early engineering and study work on the project.

All council members were present on Tuesday. But Jeannie Mock, an employee of local engineering firm AE2S, was recused from the vote; City Council member Katie Dachtler voted against the measure. She has previously opposed the project on behalf of north-end residents who say they haven’t had pressing questions about project impacts addressed.

A timeline toward construction unfolds over the next few months. On March 7, the city is slated to approve major property tax breaks for the project, complementing similar incentives already approved by county and school district leaders. By the end of April, the city will likely finish the process of annexing the site of the future Fufeng plant, as well as a group of nearby businesses that have been skeptical of the deal.

By the end of September, local permitting will likely be finished; the results of odor and traffic studies should be back by then, too — and early results could make their way to council leaders far sooner.

Those studies are critical for the future of the project, because they directly address many of the key concerns about the corn-milling plant’s future. Will it stink? City leaders have said it might smell like corn flakes, but the study will be the best evidence yet. The same is true for the truck and rail traffic the new plant could bring; what will it mean for the city’s north end?

The development agreement is built such that, if the results aren’t good enough, the city can pull the plug on the project; it’s similar to a list of other off-ramps that are built into the agreement, like Fufeng failing to get the necessary air quality or waste permits.

“The development agreement is not the end of the due diligence — it’s kicking off the due diligence, it sets the parameters for that,” Bochenski said at Tuesday night’s meeting.

That’s not enough for many of the citizens who criticized the project at Tuesday’s council meeting though. In a parade of anger, residents from near the plant’s new site and beyond shared their concerns about the plant, just as they’ve done for weeks now as City Hall has weighed Fufeng’s future.

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Grand Forks lawyer John Warcup addressed the council on behalf of S&S Transport, a business near the Fufeng site, speaking at length about the worry that the coming project — and especially any special assessment fees that it could bring to local businesses — could be a burden.

“These things happen to (my client),” he said. “Not for him, not with him — to him.”

At times, Mayor Bochenski himself was the object of criticism; one man said Bochenski had promised support for small business when he ran for office.

“And the first thing that comes down the pipe — a how-many-million or billion-dollar company comes in, and they’re not paying their own way,” one speaker said. “People like me that have been in business here for (decades), they get the bad part of the deal, and pretty soon they’re not in business.”

The city’s side of the deal represents about $96.5 million in spending, which spans engineering and construction and more as the city prepares to link the plant to its infrastructure grid — a major undertaking that will mean road improvements and massive water infrastructure upgrades. City Hall has pointed out that roughly $41 million will be paid for by state loans, COVID funds, special assessments and more; the remaining $55 million would be recouped over decades of utility costs to Fufeng Group, city leaders say.

A significant portion of the spending, they said, is accelerated improvements to local wastewater capacity that would have been done anyway during the next decade.

Eric Chutorash, COO of Fufeng Group’s American subsidiary, spoke briefly to the council at multiple points on Tuesday evening. In response to city leaders’ questions, he said that he was not aware of any Chinese government ownership in the company, and said that his company “spent the better part of January talking to general contractors,” focusing on hiring from the Grand Forks area.

He also said Fufeng Group is not using forced labor at its facility in northwestern China, where the Chinese government has repressed a minority Muslim population and forced them into detention centers. Doubts about Fufeng’s connection to the practice, and other worries about ties to China, have dogged the project for months.

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One concern has been Grand Forks Air Force Base’s proximity to the new plant. Air Force officials did not respond to a request for comment this week prior to this story’s deadline. However, Bruce Gjovig, a longtime civilian liaison to the base, downplayed concerns this week.

“I have not heard that the USAF is worried about (the) Fufeng corn milling plant, and no more worried than about (local business) Cirrus Design, which is Chinese owned, or the scores of Chinese students that trained at UND Aerospace,” he wrote in a text message.

During the meeting, audience member Michael Coachman suggested that members of the City Council should be arrested for allowing the Fufeng proposal to move forward.

"This is just a notice, I wanted to clarify so everybody could find out what is going on. This is what is talked about (as) a citizen’s arrest by a private person,” said Coachman, who is from Larimore, as he leafed through a document he was holding.

Coachman briefly invoked “The authority of God the father, the son and the Holy Spirit,” the U.S. Constitution and North Dakota Century Code.

City Council President Dana Sande offered a few conciliatory remarks near the end of the meeting. After a long, long public comment — full of angry speakers, with some especially concerned about special assessment bills — he said he knew the city needs to pay careful attention.

“We need to figure this out,” Sande said. “We need to take care of the folks that have been in our community for years, and it’s not OK for us to unduly burden the folks with special assessments in Falconer Township.”

Sam Easter is a freelance reporter who has been a regular contributor to the Herald since 2019. He covers a variety of topics, including government and politics.

In 2015, he joined the Herald’s staff as City Hall reporter, covering North Dakota politics at all levels and conducting Herald investigations through early 2018, when he began his freelancing career.

Easter can be reached at samkweaster@gmail.com or via Twitter via @samkweaster.
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