Grand Forks opponents of proposed Fufeng plant race to meet petition deadline
City Council leaders approved a development deal with Fufeng Group last month. Petitioners want to send that decision to voters.
GRAND FORKS – Grand Forks could soon get a citywide election on its economic future — if petition-gatherers can get the signatures together.
Petition-gatherers on Thursday said they aren't yet sure how many signatures they have. But if it happens, the election likely will decide the future of a deal to bring a new corn-milling plant to the city. Fufeng Group, a Chinese agribusiness, has been negotiating its arrival for months. But a backlash over the company’s ties to China — plus concerns about tax dollars and the environment — could scuttle it.
City Council leaders approved a development deal with Fufeng Group last month. But petitioners want to send that decision to voters, giving the entire city a chance to weigh in and potentially reject the agreement.
Chris Spicer is one of the top organizers for the petition drive. He said he’s involved because he’s worried about excess traffic and smells in Grand Forks. He also noted that his family owns Spice 1 Trucking, which is near the plant’s future location.
“I just kind of got into it because I believe it’s the right thing that we should do in this town,” he said. “Our citizens should have a choice. We’re doing the work for the City Council right now, that they didn’t do for us.”
Spicer is a bridge between two key groups that have opposed the project. Citizens in Grand Forks have expressed worries about water supply, tax dollars and more. Business owners in Falconer Township, along the city’s northern border, share many of those concerns, and could also face higher tax burdens, since the city plans to annex those properties within city limits — as well as special assessments as construction improves area roads and utilities.
Spicer said petitioners are chasing 3,617 signatures — a legal threshold, tied to the number of city voters in the last gubernatorial election — to trigger a citywide referendum. They hope to file a far higher number. The city charter says organizers have 30 days after Feb. 22, the day the development deal was approved, to get those signatures to City Hall.
Spicer said organizers are hoping to file early, on Monday, March 21.
“I haven’t come up with a (current signature) total,” he said on Wednesday, “but I will tell you we’ve got a lot of people working hard on this, and I’m pretty positive that we’re going to hit our mark.”
The prospect of a citizen petition calls to mind a similar process that played out at Grand Forks’ Arbor Park — a “pocket park” nestled downtown along South Fourth Street that was the subject of intense community debate several years ago.
In 2016, the city pursued a land deal to put a condo and commercial building on the site, but a group of citizens insistent on the park’s community value forced the issue to the ballot box. In a June 2017 election, efforts to preserve the park only won 47% of the vote, clearing the way for construction.
Echoes of that episode ring especially loud with the involvement of Mary Weaver, who is gathering signatures for the group seeking to bring the Fufeng proposal to a citywide vote. Weaver is the owner of Browning Arts, which neighbors the former Arbor Park space. She points out that she’s no leader of the movement — not by a long shot — but that she’s happy to help.
“Getting signatures for Arbor Park, I was very successful in door-to-door (gathering),” she said. Describing concerns about the environmental impact and the “financial perks” she frets the city is giving away. “And that's what I'm doing this time, because that worked well for me last time.”
The stakes at the time were just a park. Now hundreds of millions of dollars in potential investment — plus, City Hall leaders argue, Grand Forks’ credibility with investors — could be pitted against citizens’ worries about the environment, tax dollars and connections to China.
One pamphlet circulated in Grand Forks comes from Dave Hangsleben, CEO of Reliance Telephone, inviting anyone concerned about the plant — including its impact on the environment, or the public finances behind it — to stop by his business on South 42nd Street and sign the petition.
On Wednesday, he said he’d collected about 600 signatures in the last several days.
“I am vehemently opposed to the city of Grand Forks taking my tax dollars and giving it to a communist, Chinese company,” he said this week.
City leaders have insisted that worries about Fufeng Group are misplaced, expressing bafflement at claims that the plant might be a beachhead for the Chinese Communist Party. It’s an American plant, which will create jobs right in Grand Forks, they point out, with most of the plant’s product sold in North America.
A pamphlet hosted on the website of the Grand Forks Economic Development Corporation — a key driver of the project — argues that no direct funding is going to Fufeng Group, although the city will spend tens of millions to “accommodate” improved “roads, water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure” for the group.
Local leaders also insist that there are “no significant pollution concerns” and that there’s plenty of available water to cover the plant’s needs. They downplay worries about how the plant will smell.
“Odor reported from other communities with like facilities describe it as a light toasted corn flake smell,” the pamphlet notes. “Because the corn milling industry has been around for about 200 years, the technology used is proven and provides consistent operations making odor low and very predictable.”
It’s also not clear how the city feels about the petition’s legality, or if the city attorney, Dan Gaustad, believes the matter can be referred to a citywide referendum. City Administrator Todd Feland referred those questions to Gaustad; the Herald was unable to reach Gaustad for comment.
The process for gathering signatures appears to be decentralized, with many signature-gatherers taking the initiative into their own hands. Much of the effort is playing out on the group’s Facebook page, “GF Community Awareness of FuFeng Project.” And Ben Grzadzielewski, a member of the petition’s organizing committee, points out that his concerns about the project aren’t always the same as his neighbors’.
“It’s purely an environmental, water issue for me. That is my main concern,” he said. “When you start working together with 100 other people, there’s 100 different opinions. Everyone’s got their own reasons. For me, personally, it’s water.”
And Grzadzielewski said he’s grateful for the community’s interest in sending the petition to a full referendum.
“I appreciate all the hard work that everyone is putting in,” he said. “We have a lot of people working on this, and a lot of people are dedicating many, many hours of their time to make sure this gets done. I appreciate that, and I would like to say thank you to everyone involved.”