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Was Fufeng deal handled well? Grand Forks City Council candidates respond

Candidates were surveyed by email, and responded earlier this month with their answers. Today, the Herald is reviewing how each candidate feels about Fufeng Group.

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Eric Chutorash, COO of Fufeng USA Inc., discusses Fufeng's proposed corn wet milling plant in Grand Forks during a City Council meeting Monday, April 19, 2022.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — Grand Forks City Council races are just weeks away on June 14, with the city set to vote on three races — two of them contested.

They could be crucial votes as the council weighs the future of China-based Fufeng Group’s bid to build a corn mill on the city’s northern border — a massive investment in the regional economy that’s also run into resistance for fears of the plant’s water consumption, potential odors and links to China.

The city is now facing a lawsuit on the matter, brought by petitioners who had nearly 5,000 signatures to force a vote on the plant’s future. Those were rejected by City Hall for technical legal reasons — and two cases brought by the same leading petitioners seek to reverse that decision.

RELATED: Candidates finalized for local Grand Forks elections, including school, county, city, judge and park district

As the election nears, the Herald plans coverage of where each candidate stands on important issues — like the local economy, big community projects and what they think makes them the best candidates. The answers show candidates grappling with big questions about Grand Forks’ future — on the Alerus Center, locating a proposed new Red River bridge and more.

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Candidates were surveyed by email, and responded earlier this month with their answers. Today, the Herald is reviewing how each candidate feels about Fufeng Group.

The Herald's question: “Regarding the Fufeng wet-corn mill: Do you feel the council or city leadership made any missteps in efforts to bring Fufeng to Grand Forks? New candidates, would you have approached it differently? Incumbents, do you wish you’d have done something differently?”

Ward 2

Ward 2 stretches from the north side of downtown up into the industrial region north of Gateway Drive, and will pit Rebecca Osowski, a sales support specialist at LM Wind Power, against Matthew Ternus, former UND student body president and current staffer for the Community Violence Intervention Center.

When the new Fufeng Group plant is annexed — along with a cluster of nearby businesses — it likely will join this ward. That makes the new corn mill a particularly sensitive local issue, since the winner probably will represent the highest concentration of project opponents in the city.

City Council member Katie Dachtler is the current Ward 2 representative but is not seeking reelection. She was voted in before Ward 2 was redrawn to include the city’s northern industrial region, but has represented the region’s interests all the same, voting against a development deal with Fufeng out of concern that nearby residents weren’t adequately consulted.

“I have heard both sides of the Fufeng wet-corn mill and feel that there needs to be more communication between city government and the people of Grand Forks,” Osowksi said. “As a ‘new’ candidate, I am hoping to be able to close the large gap and bring the different viewpoints together.”

Ternus said he’s heard from local residents that they want more time to discuss Fufeng’s arrival. He added that he hopes to to host “various forums” if elected to ensure community members have a chance to say their piece.

“We need more opportunity to engage elected leaders,” he said. “More opportunity for neighbors to be heard, not just at the end of council meetings. …Servant leadership involves representing the thoughts of those you were elected to represent, and the best way to do that is for those elected to listen and learn.”

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Ward 4

Ward 4 follows the residential neighborhoods bordering the Red River from roughly 40th Avenue South to Minnesota Avenue near downtown Grand Forks. After City Council member Jeannie Mock declined to seek reelection, the race will be run between Ward Johnson, an attorney, businessman and former Army colonel ; Tricia Lunski, co-owner of HB Sound & Light ; and Harry Samuelson, a mechanic at Nelson International.

Johnson said Fufeng’s arrival is a “real hot-button issue.” He’s polled local residents as he’s campaigned door-to-door, and found that more than two-thirds “do not care” about the issue. About 25%, he said, are strongly against it, and 7% “have no idea what it is.” He still harbors some concerns about tax breaks, water usage and potential plant odor.

“I’m not against the idea of a new business coming to the area,” he said. “But I have concerns if this is the right business for our community. I am simply unsure right now. I have not seen enough information to make a final decision.”

Lunski said she wasn’t ready to say if she would have approached the Fufeng deal differently. She said she’s worried about how Fufeng will find workers, given the ongoing worker shortage in Grand Forks, but also said the plant seems to be another opportunity for farmers to sell crops locally, rather than shipping them to China.

“Yesterday, I would have said communication could have been better to the community, but after doing more research, I found out the city wasn’t able to disclose the information about Fufeng until the deal was complete, which is common in a project like this,” she said, running through a list of other misconceptions she’d had about the project. “I’m still not ready to give a final answer on Fufeng, but I am excited about learning more.”

Samuelson said the city has made mistakes in pursuing Fufeng, and that the recent residents' petition seeking a referendum shows that “a substantial portion” of Grand Forks wants to have its say in the city’s business deal. In the past, the city has sent important questions to the public, he said, but not this time.

“The city government could have made the case for the project to the majority of citizens, and convinced the city of Grand Forks that this was a benefit,” Samuelson said. “Instead, many questions and concerns by residents, including me, have been disregarded or mocked. This doesn’t help the situation.”

Ward 6

City Council President Dana Sande is running unopposed in Ward 6, which includes south-central Grand Forks. He’s been an aggressive defender of Fufeng Group’s arrival, often rebutting what he sees as unfounded concern about the plant during council meetings.

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Asked about Fufeng, he said City Hall “approached this like any other competitive opportunity,” responding to a state Commerce Department’s request for proposals and working alongside other local taxing groups — like the School Board and county government — to weigh the project’s benefits.

“I would not have done anything differently and do not believe we made any missteps,” he said. “I believe the negativity regarding the corn milling plant is being spurred by a very vocal minority.”

To read each of the candidate’s complete answers to this and other questions from the questionnaire, go to the Herald’s website and search for this headline:
" Grand Forks City Council candidates: A look at their answers to six questions from the Herald "

Sam Easter is a Michigan-based 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 returned to Michigan and began his freelancing career.

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