Year-long Fufeng debate over controversial proposed corn plant named Herald's 2022 news story of the year
Over the past 13 months, some 230 Herald stories, opinion pieces and letters mentioned the project.
GRAND FORKS – More than a year after city leaders announced a wet corn mill was planning to come to Grand Forks, the debate continues.
During a November 2021 meeting with the Herald's editorial board, city leaders publicly announced that China-based Fufeng Group chose Grand Forks as its first U.S. site. The proposed plant, they said, would come with a large economic impact for the city and hundreds of jobs to boost the local economy.
In a recent interview with the Herald, Mayor Brandon Bochenski recalled his initial reaction to the company choosing Grand Forks and what it would mean for the city.
“Obviously, initially you’re excited when a large company picks your city and wants to make a big investment there,” Bochenski said. “When the Economic Development Corporation showed us what some of the impacts would be to employment, to workforce, to property tax, to the ripple effects in the economy, (it) just certainly seemed like a great opportunity for the community.”
Over the past 13 months, more than 230 Herald stories, opinion pieces and letters to the editor mentioned the project. Because of its constant presence in local news throughout 2022, the proposed Fufeng Group mill — and the controversy that has surrounded it — has been named the top news story of the year by the Herald’s staff. Since November 2021, Herald stories with Fufeng mentions generated more than 250,000 page views on the Herald’s website.
Perhaps the interest is due to the project’s combination of excitement among city leaders and concern among opponents. Its proponents point to its potential economic impact for the region, while opponents have raised a number of concerns, including the city’s process for annexing land in that neighborhood, the city’s decision to negate a petition to bring a development agreement before voters, the proposed plant’s possible environmental impact and – most recently – perceived security concerns due to its proximity to Grand Forks Air Force Base.
While Bochenski and City Administrator Todd Feland said the city anticipated some opposition to the plant – specifically regarding the tax incentives, annexation of the land and the environmental impacts – Feland said national security is the “unique part” of the Fufeng project.
“We understood that it was a publicly traded company with China. We anticipated some concerns regarding China, but I don’t think we predicted as much of that national security issue with this investment at the time (of the announcement),” Feland said. “However, the geopolitics of our country with China has certainly changed since it was first announced and we didn’t anticipate all of that.”
Throughout the year the project has not only received extensive coverage from local media, but national media too. In July the New York Times featured a story about the proposed Fufeng project on the newspaper's front page. Other national media outlets that have covered the plant include CNBC and Fox News.
Bochenski said to some extent he’s surprised by the national attention the plant has received, as well as the opposition, as the city continues gathering information within the project's development agreement.
“As you’re going through and getting all the details, I guess I was a little bit surprised at the pushback before we had all that information,” Bochenski said. “In my mind we set out a process to gather information and to report on that, and it seemed like there was a lot of pushback prior to that information being able to be released.”
The proposed plant has made headlines on a variety of topics, ranging from a petition started by opponents, lawsuits against the city and, most recently, a federal review. Here is a recap of some of the noteworthy Fufeng happenings:
- City leaders sat down with the Herald’s editorial board in November 2021, to announce the plant. At the time city and economic leaders including Bochenski and Keith Lund, who heads the local EDC, described the company’s investment in the city as “historic.”
- In January, proposed tax breaks for the project were presented to the city’s Local Government Advisory Committee.
- Also in January, the project received its first formal review by City Council members, with a draft development agreement for the project being presented. Council members approved the development agreement at the end of February, unfolding an extensive timeline of needed studies to address the engineering and environmental impacts of the project.
- Opponents launched a petition in early March with the goal of putting the Fufeng project to a citywide vote. Though the petition gained nearly 5,000 valid signatures (3,800 were required), it was disqualified by City Hall for formatting problems.
- Top city leaders hosted a briefing from FBI representatives in May. Attendees said the briefing touched on Chinese investment in the American agricultural sector, but they also said the FBI did not raise concerns about Fufeng’s expansion in North Dakota.
- In May, following the city’s decision on the petition, two cases against the city were brought forward by Grand Forks resident Ben Grzadzielewski, a leader of the petition, and People for the Vote. One case sought a court order reversing city auditor/finance director Maureen Storstad’s rejection of the petitions, and the other was an administrative appeal of that decision.
- In early June, council members approved annexing a portion of land north of the city.
- A memo written by United States Air Force Maj. Jeremy Fox, who is posted at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, suggested the project could be a source of espionage focused on nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base.
- In July, council members were informed by Washington D.C.-based attorney Bridget Reineking in July that Fufeng would likely undergo a federal review through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.
- In August, Ramsey County Judge Donovan Foughty dismissed the administrative appeal and ruled in favor of the city of Grand Forks and Storstad’s decision to dismiss the petition.
- The city paused all Fufeng-related infrastructure projects in September after CFIUS said more information on Fufeng Group was needed before it could determine whether the Chinese-owned agribusiness poses a risk to national security.
- Another complaint — this one filed by Grand Forks resident Dennis Kadlec related to the annexation of land for the plant — was dismissed by the Northeast Judicial District in early October. Also in October, People for the Vote filed a notice of appeal to the North Dakota Supreme Court.
- CFIUS determined that it would review the Fufeng project in October. The 45-day review concluded on Dec. 12 with the committee determining that the project’s land deal doesn’t fall within its jurisdiction.
Following the CFIUS review the next steps for the proposed plant still need to be decided by the City Council. More discussion on the plant at a City Council level is set to be held during meetings in early 2023.
During a Dec. 19 City Council meeting, Grzadzielewski asked the council to continue seeking answers to questions surrounding the plant, and to follow up after the CFIUS review to provide answers for the public.
“We need to figure out how to follow up on it. CFIUS did nothing for us and if you’re doing your due diligence, it’s your job to follow up on it and to get answers,” Grzadzielewski said during the meeting. “We can’t just walk away from it and say ‘well we tried.’ That’s not an answer. That’s giving up, that's not following through and that’s not doing the job to the end.”
The city is also still working on getting answers laid out within the development agreement for the project. The agreement protects the city financially, and it also addresses important points such as the environmental, engineering and public safety factors of the project.
Bochenski said the agreement is “probably the most stringent and onerous document that the city has ever placed on a business.”
Bochenski hopes Grand Forks continues attracting industry.
“The more industry that you bring in certainly does benefit all the current businesses that are in Grand Forks,” Bochenski said.
Other than Fufeng Group bringing in industry, Epitome Energy announced in December that it has chosen Grand Forks as the new site for a $400 million soybean crushing plant. A development agreement for Epitome Energy is still in the works.
Although the amount of time and investment being placed into both proposed plants is significant, Feland said that is to be expected for industrial plants of this size.
“I say sometimes that these are not warehouse projects, these are not big box projects — these are much more significantly enhanced projects that require a lot of thought and investment in them,” Feland said. “They’re not easy, but if you can move forward with these projects, they have a really positive and strong legacy in the community.”
Feland said the impact the wet corn mill plant and the soybean crush plant could have would be “extraordinary,” not only for Grand Forks, but also for the region.
“We’re in this unique opportunity where we’re at the front edge of corn processing and soybean processing in our region,” Feland said. “If we do these right and well, think of the legacy that we will have created for Grand Forks and the region for the next 100 years.”