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Riverwalk Centre mall eyes major tenant

East Grand Forks officials are negotiating with a tenant who is interested in taking over half of the city-owned Riverwalk Centre mall, according to Economic Development and Housing Authority chairman George Wogaman.

East Grand Forks officials are negotiating with a tenant who is interested in taking over half of the city-owned Riverwalk Centre mall, according to Economic Development and Housing Authority chairman George Wogaman.

It's possible, he said, that the city even could sell that half to the tenant, whose name he declined to reveal because of the sensitivity of negotiations.

The city then could use the proceeds to spruce up the mall's outdated exterior, he said.

If the deal goes through, it would be a significant reversal of fortune for the Riverwalk Centre, which has been losing money every year since 2002 because many tenants have fared poorly and cannot pay rent. Recently, its biggest tenant, Ben Franklin Crafts, left for the Grand Cities Mall, still owing the city in excess of $350,000 in back rent and loans.

That departure left roughly half the mall dark, the half that the new tenant now could take over.

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The question now is how quickly the city could move to take advantage of the opportunity.

Delegating authority

One of the problems for the EDHA up to this point appears to be its difficulty reaching a decision.

In October, the group hired Larry Stammen, the former manager of the Grand Cities Mall, to find a way to revive the Riverwalk Centre. In mid-December, he delivered a report to the authority explaining their options with the mall, including turning it into an outdoors entertainment complex or a specialty retail center.

Since that time, there has been little action.

Asked Tuesday if the EDHA chosen one of the options in Stammen's report, Wogaman, who only recently was elected to the chairmanship, said the group has not formally decided.

Back in November, Stammen told the authority Tuesday, he had five prospective tenants, but that number has now dwindled to two. He conceded that he had not submitted the names of those tenants to the EDHA. But, he said, whether each tenant were suitable for the mall really depended on which options the authority chose.

"We need to act, we need to decide," he said. "The last couple of months have been nonproductive from my point of view."

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That statement came after City Council member Steve Gander, an EDHA board member, prodded his colleagues on who exactly would be charged with negotiating with tenants. For the past four months, Stammen has been talking with businesses, but no one on the EDHA has seen fit to give him the authority to negotiate with them.

"If you don't give Larry some freedom, you shouldn't have hired him," Mayor Lynn Stauss chipped in.

It was shortly after this that the EDHA agreed to let Stammen lead a negotiating team of three or four.

The media spotlight

At the same time, city officials appear to have been deeply concerned with media coverage of the Riverwalk Centre.

On Tuesday, a Herald reporter temporarily was barred from the EDHA meeting because board members were having lunch. The reporter was allowed in only after citing the state's open meeting laws.

When asked if the EDHA were not prepared that day to make a decision regarding the prospective tenant, Wogaman conceded that that was the case. He said he understood EDHA director Jim Richter did have handouts with various financial options regarding the tenant but decided not to talk about them when he heard from an assistant that a reporter would attend the meeting.

This was roughly during the three- to four-minute period the reporter was barred.

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Instead, Wogaman said, those options would be discussed at another meeting, though he said it could happen as early as next week.

During the meeting, Council President Dick Grassel, another EDHA board member, explained several times the need for secrecy when dealing with businesses that like to jealously guard their expansion plans.

The appointment of Stammen as lead negotiator appears to be the solution. Stammen, a private consultant, and his team of up to three co-negotiators from the city would not run afoul of open meeting laws.

However, they still would have to bring any prospective tenant back to the EDHA and then to the City Council for formal approval.

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