Will the Fufeng project result in political changes in Grand Forks?
“I don’t really think about things in political terms,” Mayor Brandon Bochenski told the Herald. Meanwhile, some in town seek to recall the mayor and the council president.
GRAND FORKS — When Fufeng Group tapped Grand Forks last year for its massive new corn mill, city officials spoke excitedly about the agribusiness’ arrival.
Mayor Brandon Bochenski said the proposed plant could put “the city on the map in a big way" and lead to future investments in Grand Forks.
In the months that followed the November announcement, City Council meetings where Fufeng appeared on the agenda became a venue for heated debate. Critics of the project expressed national security concerns over the company’s Chinese ownership and environmental worries about the plant’s footprint.
Local leaders in economic development continue to support the project, saying it would benefit the region’s farmers and bring hundreds of jobs to the community.
For now, the proposed mill sits in limbo. Bochenski and the city council decided to halt Fufeng-specific construction until a federal security panel finishes its review of the project. But regardless of whether the plant gets built, will Grand Forks voters’ feelings about the polarizing project impact who serves in city government?
It’s an interesting but for now unanswerable question, said UND political science professor Mark Jendrysik.
The next mayoral and City Council elections won’t come until 2024, and it’s hard to predict whether the Fufeng issue will still “have legs” at that point, Jendrysik said. It’s also difficult to know whether the strong-willed critics of the project represent the broader public or if they are just a loud minority, he noted.
The professor said he could see Fufeng opponents putting their names on the ballot to challenge Bochenski or members of the council who have supported the project.
If the project falls through, it would be “a major blow to the members of the City Council and to the mayor since they’ve invested a lot of energy and reputation in it,” Jendrysik said.
On the other hand, if the corn mill gets built, perhaps Fufeng opponents could continue to make it a central issue in a campaign against the incumbents, he noted.
Bochenski, who was first elected in 2020, said he doesn’t consider his political future when making decisions about Fufeng or any other city business.
“I don’t really think about things in political terms,” Bochenski said, noting that he and other city leaders are doing their best to properly vet the project based on the available facts.
The mayor said he plans to run for reelection in 2024, but he hasn’t yet made a final decision.
Bochenski said he thinks local public opinion on the corn mill — like the project itself — may hinge on the review being conducted by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, known as CFIUS.
City Council President Dana Sande, who won a fourth four-year term unopposed in June, said he and other supporters of the project aren’t betting their political futures on Fufeng.
“We’re being pragmatic and looking at this project like any other economic development opportunity for our community,” Sande said.
Sande said he’s still fully behind the project, but he would reconsider his backing if the federal government found any national security issues with Fufeng. He thinks the community shares his viewpoint on the “value-added ag” endeavor.
“The fact of the matter is there’s a small group of people that lives up there that just doesn’t want the corn mill in their backyard, and they are the loudest and they’re screaming communism and pollution and national security — they’re screaming anything that people will latch onto,” Sande said.
Sande said the members of the council who have opposed aspects of the proposed mill may be the ones jeopardizing their future in local government.
Councilwoman Rebecca Osowski, who represents the northern edge of the city where Fufeng’s land is located, has been the most vocal opponent of the project on the city panel. Osowski said she didn’t run earlier this year to have a career in politics. She declined to speculate on other members’ political futures, noting that it’s up to the voters.
Jodi Carlson, an outspoken critic of Fufeng, said the voters of Grand Forks will hold a grudge against officials like Bochenski and Sande who have backed the project. Carlson said she and a group of anti-Fufeng residents are planning to mount a recall effort against Bochenski and Sande in the next few months.
“We won’t wait until 2024 — things have to change,” Carlson said.
Bochenski said it’s “hurtful” that any residents want to recall him, but he and Sande noted they doubt Carlson’s effort will succeed. Carlson first announced the recall attempt months ago, and nothing has come of it, Sande said.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got a company that wants to invest in our community and create jobs, and we’ve been tasked with the difficult task of due diligence and vetting,” Bochenski said. “It’s unfortunate that the group that’s against it can’t work together with us.”