Opponents aim to put controversial Chinese plant before Grand Forks voters

The Grand Forks City Council has already voted to move forward with a controversial development agreement on a proposed $350 million corn-milling plant by the Chinese-owned company Fugeng Group. But a coalition of citizens opposed to the deal due to concerns over taxpayer subsidies and environmental and national security issues plans to make sure voters get the final say over whether the contentious project becomes a reality or not.

Opponents have mounted a drive to collect more than the 3,617 signatures needed to force the proposed plant onto a citywide ballot for an up or down vote in June. The Grand Forks Herald points out the grassroots effort pits opponents with widely divergent reasons for opposing the project against City Hall and some statewide elected officials.

One pamphlet circulated in Grand Forks comes from Dave Hangsleben, CEO of Reliance Telephone, inviting anyone concerned about the plant — including its impact on the environment, or the public finances behind it — to stop by his business on South 42nd Street and sign the petition.

On Wednesday, he said he’d collected about 600 signatures in the last several days.

“I am vehemently opposed to the city of Grand Forks taking my tax dollars and giving it to a communist, Chinese company,” he said this week.

Organizers of the petition drive were still out pursuing signatures up to the last minute before a March 22 deadline to meet the legal requirements, according to the group’s Facebook page.

The end is in sight, and we only have one more full day of collecting signatures! Could everyone who is still collecting please spend an hour going door to door this evening? That could add another 500 signatures to our total. Our goal is to send a tidal wave of paperwork to city hall and show them we mean business. We need to show them in no uncertain terms that the citizens of Grand Forks do care and do want a voice. Let’s do one last big push and see if we can have our biggest day yet!

Media reports have linked the company to the Chinese Communist Party. Senator Kevin Cramer, R-ND has also voiced concerns over the proposed plant’s proximity to the Grand Forks Air Force Base some 13 miles away. Despite the local backlash, city officials remain committed to what they view as an economic bonanza that will generate an estimated 200 jobs.

City leaders have insisted that worries about Fufeng Group are misplaced, expressing bafflement at claims that the plant might be a beachhead for the Chinese Communist Party. It’s an American plant, which will create jobs right in Grand Forks, they point out, with most of the plant’s product sold in North America.

A pamphlet hosted on the website of the Grand Forks Economic Development Corporation — a key driver of the project — argues that no direct funding is going to Fufeng Group, although the city will spend tens of millions to “accommodate” improved “roads, water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure” for the group.

Local leaders also insist that there are “no significant pollution concerns” and that there’s plenty of available water to cover the plant’s needs. They downplay worries about how the plant will smell.

Yet for opponents of the plant, there’s already a sort of stench in the air from a process and project they view with suspicion.

The process for gathering signatures appears to be decentralized, with many signature-gatherers taking the initiative into their own hands. Much of the effort is playing out on the group’s Facebook page, “GF Community Awareness of FuFeng Project.” And Ben Grzadzielewski, a member of the petition’s organizing committee, points out that his concerns about the project aren’t always the same as his neighbors’.

“It’s purely an environmental, water issue for me. That is my main concern,” he said. “When you start working together with 100 other people, there’s 100 different opinions. Everyone’s got their own reasons. For me, personally, it’s water.”

Referendum or not, officials of the Chinese-owned company must be mystified by a system in which the viability of a $350 million investment could hinge as much or more on the views of average Grand Forks residents expressed at the ballot box than the influential city officials they’ve been courting.