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Grand Forks petition for vote on Fufeng grinds to a halt — for now

No only are city leaders eyeing an economic opportunity, but they’re worried about what saying no to the proposed factory might mean in the future.

Fufeng meeting.jpg
A pickup truck parked across from City Hall ahead of the City Council meeting on Monday, April 18, 2022 displays one view of the proposed Fufeng corn wet milling plant.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — City leaders made their choice this week: full ahead for now, and leave a petition with nearly 5,000 signatures on it in the past.

The moment came Monday evening, hours into a long Grand Forks City Council meeting, during which top leaders weighed planning and zoning measures for a new corn-milling facility from Fufeng Group. As skepticism of the plant has mounted — driven by environmental and political worries — a recent petition drive managed to produce 4,797 valid signatures calling for a citywide referendum on the plant’s future.

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Why would anyone want to do business with such an adversary?

It was a challenge unimaginable just six months ago, when interest from Fufeng Group was first announced and hopes abounded that its hundreds of new jobs might transform the local economy. But doubts about the plant have multiplied — many of which are linked to worries about China-based Fufeng Group links to the Chinese government, concerns about the environment and frustration from future neighbors.

That petition, with its nearly 5,000 valid signatures, was deemed “insufficient” earlier this month by city auditor Maureen Storstad, who cited a list of legal issues with its goals and its formatting. But, petition backers have been quick to point out, the number approved of signatures themselves far outstripped the threshold to force a referendum. Its disqualification wasn’t for lack of support — it was merely for more technical reasons.

On Monday evening, those thousands of signatures did not have their own agenda item, but they were hard to ignore. City Council member Jeannie Mock said that she was worried about the city’s credibility as it appeared to breeze past citizen concerns; fellow member Ken Vein called the total number of names “fairly significant.”

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Perhaps, leaders were forced to consider, it might be worth exploring how to give the public their say.

RELATED: In marathon City Hall meeting, Fufeng annexation gets early nod

“It seems to me like we’re getting a more and more significant credibility problem, where people are saying the city is not in the right on this,” Mock said in an interview this week. “I’m just worried about the long-term credibility of the city in the eyes of the citizens.”

But the issue is a thorny one for city leaders. The Fufeng Group plant, proposed by the company’s newly formed American subsidiary, could bring more than 200 jobs that pay an average of approximately $60,000, according to local economic officials’ calculations. Throughout Monday evening, city leaders heard from top economic officials, local business owners and even Fufeng USA COO Eric Chutorash himself, all explaining why they see the plant as a huge boon for the city.

And not only are city leaders eyeing that economic argument, but they’re worried about what saying no might mean in the future. Brandon Baumbach, a senior official with the local Economic Development Corporation, told the council he’s a liaison with businesses who are interested in coming to Grand Forks. He said he’s had two conversations with prospective new arrivals who are waiting to see how Fufeng Group is welcomed in the community.

“There needs to be some certainty in those decisions if they were to invest. … Not to overstate that, but Grand Forks has always been open for business, and I think this is a real opportunity to affirm that,” Baumbach said.

And it’s clear that some top leaders believe the push against the plant is rooted in misinformation, or at least some kind of misunderstanding. While plant skeptics have worried about Fufeng Group’s links to China, or its impact on the environment or traffic or local odors, city leaders have taken pains to argue those concerns are unfounded or overblown — that Fufeng Group’s presence will grow the economy and the city’s tax income without disrupting the water supply or acting as an extension of the Chinese government.

“It’s almost hard to think of a (Grand Forks) business that doesn’t get impacted positively, because we need everything,” Chutorash, the Fufeng USA COO, told the council this week. “We need food, we need catering, we need meetings, we need cleaning, we need landscaping. We have people who are visiting, restaurants, retail, housing. … There’s a lot of indirect benefit.”

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City Council President Dana Sande spent much of Monday evening’s meeting posing questions for which he already seemed to know the answer, acting as de facto defense attorney for the project. He asked City Attorney Dan Gaustad at length to explain legal concerns with holding a vote on a development agreement with the city; Gaustad said the council’s approval of the agreement is “administrative” and not referable by petition, and that the city would set a poor precedent by sending the matter to the ballot.

“I think the long-term ramifications of referring something like this to a vote is going to be incredibly detrimental to our city,” Sande said that evening. “I think our ability to recruit future employers to the community would be considerably damaged. Unfortunately, I think seizing great opportunities takes great resolve and sometimes at considerable personal cost. I think this has personally cost me more than anything I have had to endure in my life. Being called a communist, being called corrupt, being told I don’t care about our community.”

The conversation died out not long after; the council ultimately took no action on the measure, and are not expected to do so in the near future. City Council member Bret Weber said the development agreement is the legal framework that allows the city to keep studying and exploring bringing Fufeng Group to Grand Forks, giving it a chance to more deeply consider big issues like odor and increased traffic and more.

“There seems to be a sense that the council has already approved the Fufeng plant,” Weber said. “We have not.”

It’s not clear where proponents of the petition go from here. Ben Grządzielewski was one of the top organizers behind the petition. He said the group is still weighing its next moves, and declined to describe those calculations to the Herald. Asked if the group might pursue legal action, he said he didn’t know.

“It’s disappointing how it seemed like they’re going to make a lot of efforts to make sure people are satisfied on a lot of issues — such as a bridge or construction developers,” Grządzielewski said, referring to other City Hall discussions. “And that’s good. … But in the same token, they’re not recognizing us.”

Related Topics: FUFENG
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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