Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

EDITORIAL: Harbor project secrecy

City council members express frustration and misinformation over town homes

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The lack of transparency in the operation of the city of Tower’s harbor committee came home to roost on Monday as members of the city council, who have been left out of the loop, expressed frustration with the lack of information they’ve received about the project. Inaccurate and inflammatory statements, particularly by council member Kevin Fitton at Monday’s city council meeting, highlighted the lack of understanding that too many councilors have about the project, which needlessly puts the development at risk.

Fitton’s misunderstandings about the reasons behind delays in the project, as well as its finances, reflect the problems inherent in the secrecy that has shrouded the functioning of the harbor committee for at least the past two years. Most councilors clearly have only a limited understanding of the agreements that have been reached between the harbor committee and the project developers and of the factors behind ongoing delays.

It’s no surprise that councilors have questions, since the three official members of the harbor committee, Mayor Josh Carlson, City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith, and Steve Altenburg, have plainly failed to keep fellow council members apprised of the project’s twists and turns. Virtually no documentation of the committee’s activities is available since the committee takes no minutes and rarely provides any kind of written report of their activities to the council. And councilors can’t always rely on news reports in the Timberjay since the committee has repeatedly held unscheduled meetings without informing the newspaper, in violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law.

Some council members, particularly Fitton, seemed to harbor serious misunderstandings of the town home project and how it has evolved since Orlyn Kringstad and his development team first responded to a city Request for Qualifications in late 2015. At that time, the city was seeking only architectural, planning, marketing, and construction services for a town home project in which the city’s economic development authority would serve as developer. It was only after Kringstad’s group was brought to the table that the harbor committee changed the deal, insisting that his company, Tower Vision 2025, assume the developer role for the project. Under that new arrangement, the city agreed that it would finance all the public infrastructure, such as water, sewer, roads, and other utilities. While initially reluctant to take on the new role, because of the added financial risk for his company, Kringstad and his partners did agree to the city’s request.

At Monday’s meeting, Fitton falsely accused Kringstad of coming with his hand out seeking the city’s help in paying for the public infrastructure. Fitton had it exactly backwards. In fact, it was the city that strained the relationship with Tower Vision 2025 this spring by changing the deal yet again, insisting that Tower Vision take on even more risk by backstopping the city’s costs for public infrastructure through a letter of credit or similar bond. This, after Kringstad’s group had already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on architectural designs, floor plans, marketing, legal work, and much more under the terms of the original development agreement, which included the city bearing the costs for related infrastructure.

Kringstad, to his credit, has tried to find a mutually-satisfactory resolution of the dispute. Most other developers would have simply walked away, or got the lawyers involved by this point.

Indeed, other developers have chosen to walk away. In early 2016, Bob and Diane Bremer, who have significant experience in urban redevelopment in small cities, also approached the harbor committee with plans for renovation and new construction on Main Street. The Bremers eventually gave up, however, after requests for information from the city went unanswered for months. There are other examples as well.

It’s understandable that councilors are frustrated with the slow pace of progress at the harbor since the groundbreaking 11 years ago. But lashing out at Mr. Kringstad, who has worked long hours in good faith to try to advance the city’s goals for the harbor is hardly a sensible response. Members of the council can’t blame Mr. Kringstad for their lack of understanding of the project. It’s their duty to inform themselves or find out why their own harbor committee has failed to provide them the information they need to make sensible decisions. This project is too important for the council to blow it up now.

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