Mike Jacobs: Fufeng presents a multifaceted challenge for Grand Forks
After listening to the discussion of the Fufeng plant, I’ve picked out nine pressing issues, at least to some voters.
Three weeks ago, on April 6, this column began with a warning. “We might as well face it: 2022 is shaping up to be the dullest election year in North Dakota’s history.”
Boy was I wrong! In these parts, the political landscape is becoming “interestinger and interestinger,” as Alice, from "Alice in the Wonderland," would put it.
Exhibit A in support of this conclusion is the stir about a corn milling plant in Grand Forks. The Fufeng Corporation – Chinese owned – proposes to build a corn mill on city-owned land on the north side of town. Anxious residents tried to refer the project to a citywide vote. The number of signatures was far more than needed for a referral, but the city rejected the petitions on legalistic grounds.
What’s most fascinating about the attempt is the coalition backing the referral – and their tactics. What’s most threatened in the wake of its failure – so far, at least – is the credibility of the city government.
First, the effort bridged the chasm between left and right that’s apparent elsewhere in today’s political climate, bringing such unlikely figures as Terry Bjerke and Dexter Perkins together. Perkins is an activist eager to support government efforts to protect the environment. Bjerke is a former City Council member who moved out of town. His philosophy is that almost any government is too much government. On Fufeng, however, the two are united – though not for the same reasons.
Criticism of the Fufeng project has brought these disparate points of view together. This diverse coalition includes those concerned about their own welfare and those concerned about the future of the city. After listening to the discussion of the Fufeng plant, I’ve picked out nine pressing issues, at least to some voters. Here’s the list:
Chinese ownership. This is expressed in several ways. Some opponents of the Fufeng plant think it might be used for espionage. There is an Air Force Base within 20 miles of the proposed site. For others, the issue is the nature of Chinese business. Even if the Chinese government isn’t directly involved in financing the company, the company does operate in the Chinese economy, a state-driven economy.
A second is what opponents of the project see as a city government overreach. This stems from the city’s proposal to annex properties near the proposed plant. This is entirely legal; cities have extraterritorial zoning powers, but legality doesn’t guarantee popularity
Third is water. The Fufeng plant would use as much water – it’s a wet mill, after all – as the entire city uses now. Is there enough water: And if there’s not, how will the deficit be met? Equally pressing, will the water be treated? If so, is that the city’s responsibility, and is the treatment plant large enough? If not, what is the impact on the river? Will return flows degrade a river that has become a recreational destination of regional importance?
Fourth, labor. The local labor market is tight. "Help wanted" signs pretty nearly obscure the windows of businesses throughout Grand Forks. Where will new workers come from? Will existing employers be able to compete for workers?
Fifth, potential impacts on the area’s existing agricultural economy. The plant will create a local market for corn grown in the Red River Valley. Will corn replace established crops such as soybeans, sugar beets and grains? And what might that mean for existing processing plants?
Sixth, growth. Not everybody is for it.
Seventh, if there is to be growth, what should it be? Grand Forks has made a significant investment in an entirely new industry, unmanned aerial systems. What does another new enterprise portend for this investment?
Eighth, quality of life. This is a subtle one, because quality of life includes such questions as air quality – will there be more fog? – and traffic flow, among others. Probably every voter has an individual idea of what the phrase means.
Ninth, change. Some people don’t want it.
All of these and undoubtedly others produced an unexpected referendum attempt. By rejecting the petitions, the City Council created a 10th question, its own credibility with voters. Petition signatures numbered nearly as many as voters for the winner in the 2020 mayoral race. This might be the most significant consequence of the controversy, however it is resolved.
In some ways, the current situation resembles the aftermath of the flood of 1997, which has been much on our minds these last weeks, partly because the river is running high and partly because last week marked the 25th anniversary of the flood.
In the wake of the flood, Grand Forks re-invented itself, made itself more vibrant and economically more stable. There’s a chance the Fufeng plant will do that, too. But a significant number of people either don’t think it’s so or don’t want it to be so – which means the city is at a crossroads once again.
The issue is important statewide. The Fufeng plant might help realize a long-dreamed-of natural gas pipeline across the northern part of the state from the Bakken oil and gas fields. Of course, there’s concern about those impacts, too, because they extend the carbon era and, critics say, delay the necessary reckoning to stop global warming.
What unites Fufeng critics from across the spectrum is skepticism about decisions made by elected officials – which ought to make us wonder about the credibility of city government and the possible consequences of its erosion.
Make no mistake: The Fufeng plant is a local issue, and a fascinating one.
But despite my earlier disappointment in the political situation statewide, there’s plenty going on there, too. More of that at another time.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.