Detroit Mountain takes center stage
As Monday night's commissioner candidate forum proved, the potential acquisition of the former Detroit Mountain Ski Area property by Becker County is a topic upon which the candidates' opinions vary widely.
Some are in favor of exploring all possible options for the project, some are only in favor if the project can be funded without using taxpayer dollars, and some are completely opposed to the acquisition.
Not all the candidates were present to provide those opinions at the League of Women Voters-sponsored event, however: District 2 incumbent Harry Salminen, one of his challengers, Gerry Anderson and District 4 candidate Bob Spilman were absent from the proceedings.
Salminen missed because he was at Mayo Clinic dealing with some health issues, Gerry Anderson was gone for a long-planned vacation, and Spilman missed without explanation. He did not return a phone message Tuesday.
District 2 candidates Cyndi Anderson, Ben Farner and John Okeson were present, however, as were incumbent District 4 Commissioner John Bellefeuille and three of four challengers for his seat, Brad Grant, Don Skarie and Rich Grossman.
There were also a few empty seats in the audience at the Minnesota State Community & Technical College conference center.
Despite this, however, there was no shortage of questions for the candidates, with topics ranging from the controversial --acquisition of the Detroit Mountain property -- to the decidedly non controversial: Candidates almost universally agreed that children's mental health services in the county which were affected by state funding cuts were essential services and needed to be maintained.
During discussion of the proposal to acquire Detroit Mountain and develop it as a year-round recreation area, Okeson said he was in favor of the project -- especially after learning that there is a possibility of funding the purchase through grants, "with little or no county tax money."
"That's a unique piece of property out there," Okeson said, adding, "Once that property is built on, it's lost forever (as a potential recreational development)."
Grant agreed that the property should be developed as a park or recreation area -- but added that any ski resort operated on the property would need to be a private enterprise, not operated by the county.
"There are grants out there to help purchase the property," he said, adding that the acquisition "would be good for Becker County."
Bellefeuille, meanwhile, noted that "right from the start, I said we have to keep an open mind."
The development of a year-round recreation area at the site has the potential of bringing in more jobs and boosting tourism in the area, he added.
However, "I will only support this if it doesn't take money out of the taxpayers' pockets," Bellefeuille said, noting that he, too, felt the skiing operation should only be operated privately.
Skarie, while noting that he is himself an avid skier, said he didn't feel the county could justify spending money on acquiring the property that might be spent on other, more essential county services.
He also said he was "a little leery" of the potential financial success of another ski operation on the property.
"It just isn't going to be able to compete (with larger skiing facilities in the state)," he said. "It's too small."
Plus, he added, in such a poor economy, "the timing is poor."
However, Skarie noted, he wasn't against the county owning the property if the cost of acquisition could be covered by grant funds.
Anderson disagreed with Skarie on the timing issue.
"The timing is excellent," she said. "The property is available to us now."
That won't always be the case, Anderson cautioned, echoing Okeson's earlier statement about not wanting to wait until the site had been developed for other purposes.
"We should go forth with the idea to preserve this asset," she continued, noting that she would be in favor of exploring a public-private partnership for development of the site's recreational potential.
"I absolutely support exploring it further," she said.
Farner agreed with Anderson that "Detroit Mountain is something that would bring a lot of business to the Detroit Lakes area."
However, he said, he would be against the idea of asking taxpayers to pay for the project for many years into the future.
"Venture capital yes, county funds no," he added.
Farner also cautioned that "opportunity costs," and even if the county is in the position of being able to access funding sources the private sector cannot, they will need to consider the potential tax revenue lost if the county were to acquire the property.
Grossman, meanwhile, was the only candidate to voice complete opposition to the Detroit Mountain project.
"This is something government does not need to get involved with," he said. "Government was originally intended to protect and serve, and that's all. It's not (intended) to get involved in business."
Grossman also asked the audience to consider that once the county is invested in the project, where would the expenditure of funds to maintain it stop?
A follow-up question asked about how big a tax impact it would have if the county were to acquire the property (taking it off the tax rolls).
Grant and Anderson both acknowledged that the impact on individual taxes would be negligible.
However, as Skarie noted, there could be considerable impact on Erie Township -- if the township government were asked to fund all maintenance of the roads to and from the property.
"They shouldn't be burdened with that," he said.
Grossman, meanwhile, noted that if the site were developed with homes, "that's guaranteed revenue coming back to the county."
Anderson countered that there is also the possibility of generating more tax revenue by giving people in outlying areas "more reasons to come here."
"That affects everybody's bottom line," she added. "We need to look at the bigger picture."
The tax burden would be relatively minor, Anderson said, but "the potential is tremendous for economic development."
Okeson pointed out that the potential new business generated by developing Detroit Mountain as a recreational site might actually cause property taxes to drop.
"If we can make this work, it could help everybody," he said.
Other topics covered during Monday's forum included the ongoing difficulty of balancing the county's budget in the face of ever-decreasing state aid; how prepared the county is for a potential natural disaster; and the cuts to children's mental health funding.