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Fufeng Group plant back before City Council, and angry critics, yet again

City Council’s job on Monday evening was to continue vetting tax breaks and a draft construction agreement with Fufeng Group.

Grand Forks City Hall
Grand Forks City Hall

GRAND FORKS – Before Monday evening’s City Council meeting could even properly turn to talking about Fufeng Group — the Chinese company seeking to build a new corn-milling plant in Grand Forks — Mayor Brandon Bochenski spoke to head off criticism.

The new plant has been dogged by a loud group of critics, worrying about the terms of the deal, its effects on nearby residents just north of Grand Forks and — perhaps most of all — what it means to do business with a Chinese company.

“I’m sure I’m going to hear about China tonight,” Bochenski said, looking out over an unusually crowded City Council Chambers. “We certainly wouldn’t be this far in negotiations with this company if we didn’t believe that it’s a legitimate company. They’ve been doing business for 20 years across the globe, and they’ve done business in 115 countries, including the United States.”

He argued that North Dakota has sent some of Congress’ biggest “China hawks” to Washington. And that’s before tallying the full security powers of the federal government keeping the country safe.

“You’ve got the USDA, the FBI, the NSA, the CIA, the FDA, Homeland Security,” he said. “… We’ll work with our federal partners on that front. But coming here and asking us to vet international relations doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s far beyond our purview.”

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But Bochenski got a rejoinder from local residents near the end of the meeting, when public comment opened and a series of residents — some red-faced and shouting — took the microphone.

“I call tons of my business friends — they can’t find workers,” one man said. “But yet the only positive thing I’ve seen of this communist China company coming is that they’re going to bring 250 jobs. We don’t have the workforce here.”

Other commenters wondered what the plant would look like, or why the city would support its carbon footprint and contribution to climate change. Frank Matejcek, a resident of Falconer Township — where the plant could soon be built and annexed into Grand Forks — is an opponent of a new plant that could drastically change his neighborhood.

“There’s an old cowboy code, and it goes like this: ‘If it’s not yours, don’t take it. If it’s not true, don’t say it. And if it’s not right, don’t do it,’” he said. “This isn’t right. Don’t do it.”

City Council’s job on Monday evening was to continue vetting tax breaks and a draft construction agreement with Fufeng Group — which they ultimately voted 5-0 to continue discussing in a committee meeting on Monday, Feb. 14. City Council member Danny Weigel was absent from the meeting, and City Council President Dana Sande had to leave the meeting before the vote.

City leaders also heard about tax incentives for the project, which are headed toward a March 7 vote by the council. Fufeng Group is pursuing a tax break on its first 20 years of existence — about 90% discounted on property taxes for the first 10 years, plus 75% off the next 10. That would discount its taxes by tens of millions of dollars over the next two decades.

But city leaders have argued this is critical for landing the project — without which the city would have no boost to property taxes at all.

And In a newly released document from the local Economic Development Corporation, local leaders added details to what that economic boost could look like. Management salary would likely land at about $133,000 per year; salaried staff at about $72,000, and hourly staff at about $25 per hour, or $52,000 each year. The plant will add about 233 such jobs — plus likely hundreds more in the community, and perhaps more than a thousand in short-term construction jobs.

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The local price on corn and the number of local school children, the EDC argues, could also rise. The latter could bring an estimated $537,000 to the local school district each year.

Pressed for time

But It’s unclear how quickly City Council leaders sign off on the new development agreement. Although many are hopeful the project gets built — and are swayed by the number of jobs at stake — they’re worried they don’t have enough time to properly understand the complex negotiations with Fufeng Group, which will chart out tens of millions of dollars in development over the coming years.

“The problem for me just personally is time. I ran off the copies of everything I’ve got to try to review, and try to do it in a short time,” City Council member Ken Vein said. “That’s the problem I’m running into. It’s hard to say good, bad or indifferent until you get to spend some time trying to understand that.”

Last week, Feland argued that the development agreement finishing sooner could help Fufeng Group break ground sooner and safeguard its interest in staying in Grand Forks. On Monday evening, he offered another version of that argument to Vein.

“My only hesitation is that we are going to the State Water Commission asking for funding partner shares. The natural gas pipeline is moving forward,” Feland said on Monday evening. “And we still need to get all those answers that are contained within that development agreement before we can keep coming back to it with more and more information to make better decisions and provide you better insight.”

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