Have liquor store discussions led to deeper understanding?

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Discussions among LocallyGrownNorthfield.org visitors blossom and fade, to resurface another time or never again. Representative Journalism Project stories have had a similar cycle so far, but I’d like to insert a step when conversation about a topic begins to slow.

The goal of the step is to combine reader input and reported information into a single piece of writing. That way, a person can better see how the community and I worked together. I’m still figuring out what a final presentation of material would look like and how to make it as useful as possible, and I’m open to ideas from readers.

The latest online discussions surrounding a proposed new municipal liquor store subsided about three weeks ago (There are three discussion threads. Gleason offers land…” has had the most activity, followed by “EDA talks about trust…” and Two EDA members score…“).

The subject of whether and where to build a new liquor store is one that has surged intermittently among Northfielders since about 2005. In 2005, the City Council was considering renovating or moving the existing liquor store on the corner of Water and Fifth streets.

In August, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued two citations to the city after inspecting the store. Those citations indicated an electrical panel was too difficult for workers to access and that the stairway connecting the main floor to a storage room below was dangerous.

A lengthy delay

The existing City Council appears to favor building a new liquor store, but the council has struggled to decide where to build one. The decision was significantly delayed in 2007 when council members suspected Mayor J. Lee Lansing had pushed too hard in favor of putting the store in his son’s building at the south end of the downtown’s main drag. That building was one the family had operated as a hardware store for more than 30 years.

Lansing has denied any wrongdoing. Even so, the City Council voted in December 2007 to ask Lansing to resign, but Lansing refused to step down or relinquish the key to his office in city hall. The mayor and the council continued to work together, but the council had the lock changed on the mayor’s office door to prevent him from working there, and tension mounted.

In April, the Lansing family’s hardware store closed, partly as a result of a separate legal matter, according to an article published in the Northfield News. David Lansing, the mayor’s son, had to move the store as “part of a settlement of a 2006 lawsuit that centered around the hardware store building,” according to the article.

In October, the results of an investigation by Steve Betcher, the Goodhue County attorney, caused the mayor to face five charges of misconduct and two of maintaining a conflict of interest while in office.

In January, new City Council members Betsey Buckheit (Ward 2), Rhonda Pownell (At Large, two-year seat) and Erica Zweifel (Ward 3) will fill three of the council’s six seats, to replace, respectively, Scott Davis, Noah Cashman and Arnie Nelson. Mary Rossing will be the new mayor. The looming turnover has caused some people to believe that decisions about the liquor store should fall to the new council. Other people believe the existing council will be able to make a sound decision by year’s end Jan.4*. Others still are discontented that the council is no longer considering repairing the old store, or getting out of the liquor business altogether.

A new approach

In November, members of the city’s staff attempted to come up with a way to help the City Council decide where to build a new liquor store. They asked City Council to come up with basic criteria. The city staff added a few more requirements to the list and then asked property owners to submit proposals. In December, the council began to consider five proposals that fell into the boundaries of the requests, and stopped considering two proposals that fell beyond those boundaries.

The new owners of the former Lansing hardware store on 618 Division St., who do business as the New Division Development Company, submitted one of the proposals the council is currently considering. In addition, the council is considering a proposal submitted by Mendota Homes, which would build a new liquor store on the same property as The Crossing residential building, owned by Mendota. That proposed site is on the southeast corner of Second Street and State Highway 3. The Q-Block Partners is another corporation that submitted a proposal. The partners would build a store on a property across the street from The Crossing. The Northfield Development Company is proposing to develop a parcel on 500 Water St. into a new store. That property contains the Just Food cooperative grocery store. Daryl Knudsen proposed to build a store at 717 South Water St., where a multiple-family house stands now.

Despite the attempt to aid the council in its decision-making, the request for proposals process the spurred another wave of suspicion over whether someone in the city’s government was trying to be sneaky. Complications began when the city staff devised a score sheet in order to rate how closely each proposal met basic criteria.

Four different groups of people, which staff identified as important players in the proposed new liquor store development, filled out the score sheets. Those groups were: Victor Summa and Steve Engler of the Economic Development Authority’s Infill Committee; city staff, represented by Joel Walinski, interim city administrator, Brian O’Connell, community development director and Steve DeLong, liquor store manager; Northfield Enterprise Center representatives; and Donnelly Development representatives.

Northfielders debated the selection of people, the criteria on the score sheet and the ethics of rating the proposals before giving them to City Council. There was also debate over what parts of the proposals were private and what information could be revealed to the public.

The city staff released the score sheet, with the names of the each of the seven property owners who submitted proposals, in November. Walinski asked one of the city’s attorneys to look up state laws on confidential information regarding requests for proposals. He then publicly posted a memo containing information about the law.

Further complication

Perhaps the most significant debate occurred when Walinski said there were seven proposals and then Summa and Engler said that they had filled out score sheets for only five proposals when it had come time to rate the documents. On Nov. 20, Summa and Engler said city staff did not have score sheets for two of the proposals that had not met the minimum requirements in the request for proposals. Summa and Engler said they did not see the two eliminated proposals.

After Summa and Engler said they had scored only five proposals, Walinski said he could not comment on whether two more proposals had, in fact, been ruled out. That information, he said, was confidential. He added that he believed he had made it clear to Summa and Engler that any information about what they did during the scoring session was confidential.

Walinski’s remarks implied Summa and Engler had breached confidentiality. Still Summa, a retired documentary filmmaker and local political activist, and Engler, a former state senator, said they had not known the number of proposals was confidential, especially since city staff had released some information about the number of proposals and property owners previously.

The debate over the information Summa and Engler shared even seeped over to the Northfield News’ Web site. Jaci Smith, managing editor, responded to Summa’s written note of self-defense, which he posted on LocallyGrownNorthfield.org.

“It seemed to me he violated the intent if not the actual rules of the process,” Smith wrote.

Walinski has since twice refused to publicly clarify why Summa and Engler scored only five of the proposals and whether Summa and Engler breached confidentiality. Instead, Walinski said he would rather focus on the primary goal, which is to help the City Council make a decision about the liquor store.

A side discussion

While discussion about the matter unfolded online, James Gleason, one of the owners of the proposals that didn’t made the cut, came forward to reveal why he believed his family’s idea had been removed from consideration. The property was too far beyond the downtown area that City Council and city staff identified as the prime location for a new liquor store. Gleason argued that the council might not have been wise in eliminating his proposal because he offered the valuable commercial land across from the Target store for just $1. The information fueled a side debate between those who agreed with Gleason and those who suspected the motives behind his offer.

Have we learned?

I began reporting this story after attending an Economic Development Authority meeting during which the issue of the liquor store arose. I was shocked at how quickly suspicion seemed to grow among elected officials, members of city staff and Northfield residents.

I talked with people about what I observed. Some told me “Well, that’s just Northfield” or “Well, that’s just city government.” Some people pointed fingers at groups or individuals. Some blamed the infighting the City Council has experienced of late.

*Corrections indicated with a strike-through of the mistake and replacement text.

  • What does this latest development in the plan to build a new liquor store say about Northfield as a community?
  • Is there anything we can learn from these discussions?
  • How could what we learn help us in the future?
  • What is the most important question that has emerged from our discussions and have we answered it?

6 thoughts on “Have liquor store discussions led to deeper understanding?”

  1. Bonnie: If this ‘assignment’ is part of a proposed process to further explore Griff’s whirlpool of a diagram relating to ‘citizen journalism’ , I fail to see where the new levels of information lie…

    I feel that most of the questions asked are general enough that they have been answered in the previous three listed discussions, and even in some that may have occurred much earlier.

    Example: the last three questions could all be answered , from an economic perspective, by David Koenig’s continual recommendation of using a cost-benefit analysis approach to city projects.

    Example: all four questions could be replied to by my rather harsh criticism of the council’s actions on this matter from the fall of 2005 until now, and how those actions have all sorts of unintended ( ‘intended’ on some personal levels) consequences that have mired this community down in a fit of self destructive behavior.
    And the liquor store question was around before 2005; for all the studies that have been done we could probably have done the OSHA repairs twice over.

    So … I’m not sure where this 4 question process is going? Is this something suggested by the project managers?
    You know I personally think you have done a fine job with your reporting … so most important for me would be for you to state how YOU think this leads to a summary, or a conclusion, or a clarification, of general opinion … rather than a ‘re-hash’.
    Thanks.

  2. Hi Kiffi,

    Thanks for your input. I think you have some good points!

    Since the beginning of the project, the collaborators, including me, have talked about producing something we’ve called an “artifact” every so often on topics I’ve been covering.

    I don’t think we ever wanted to just do a re-hash, so it’s hard to say how we will create a more finished-looking product without it just looking like a summary.

    The “homework questions,” as Griff has called my questions, are there to help people understand the kind of information I’m looking for.

    Here’s what I think: Online news stories and blog posts are never-ending and comment threads can get so huge that it becomes daunting for a first-time reader to get caught up on the information and join the conversation.

    Part of the representative journalist’s responsibility could be to process information along the way into manageable packages.

    Also, I’ve heard people say that there’s talk about a subject but nothing really tangible comes of it. If we were to get together and say, here are the definite things we learned from these conversations and put them in one place, then maybe readers would feel like they actually helped produce something.

    Then again, perhaps the process of reporting and conversation itself is tangible and important enough to our community.

  3. From the first time I learned that the city of Northfield operated a liquor store, by reading the telephone book’s opening pages, to the time I asked an acquaintance who was standing in back of me in a grocery store line, why was the town of Northfield in the busines s of selling liquor to the reading of these comments on locally grown, I have never understood why on earth any of this is taxpayer business and why on earth it has been allowed to continue for so long.
    Conversation and reporting is important and I weigh in again, hoping someone will hear me.

  4. Oh, I left out something…when I asked the person in line about the liquor store city ownership, she got all upset and told me to hush up, she didn’t want anyone else to hear my question. Weird.

  5. When I first came to Northfield and learned of the “City owned” Muni…. I too asked myself the same question. Why would the city own a liquor store….and then my mind and math took over. My immediate thoughts were: How cool is that?
    It’s a money maker for one. It provides control and also provides the City with a whole heck of alot of information. My thoughts, again very different from yours, were based on just those simple things. Money, Math and control. Having been raised just outside of Chicago, in Berwyn Illinois and Cicero just next door….Liquor stores and bars were on every corner.
    The fights, the stupid signs, the people that would come there, (often told a story) they were everywhere (UCK) ….. having ONLY ONE LIQUOR ESTABLSIHMENT in the entire town, and one controlled with easy access to the police department, I thought what a smart thing for Northfield.
    As always, it is all about one’s perspective.

  6. Bright & Charlene –

    I have read both of your comments in regards to the City ownerd liquor store. For many years I never gave thought one way or the other as to whether the city should / should not be in the liquor business. I Must also confess that I generally shop at Firehouse Liquors due to better pricing and selection.

    But when the City began started talking about building a new liquor store I really started to think about the pro’s and con’s of it. It is true as Charlene points out that it gives the City better control. And that it is a revenue stream for the City. However, if and when the council decides to go ahead and build a new liquor store it I don’t believe it will be an asset to the city or citizens. We will still be paying higher prices (if not higher than they are now) and the city will not have that revenue stream for 15 to 20+ years as the revenue will be used to retire the debt service on the new building. And in 20 years they City will most likely want another new building.

    If at the end of the day the new councilk decides to stay in the liquor business and build a new store I hope that they can look at all options of building. I believe I heard that the construction costs of a new building would be roughly $3M. I believe they could construct a steel building with a brick facade for much less money and still have a pleasant looking building.

    In these tough economic times they city and council need to be more watchful and better stewards of the citizens money (taxes).

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