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Erik Burgess, Published January 28 2013

Mayor calls Moorhead City Council’s handling of Bluestem an ‘embarrassment’

MOORHEAD – Some of the City Council’s dealings regarding the Bluestem Center for the Arts have flirted with foolishness and crossed the line into embarrassing.

That’s according to Mayor Mark Voxland, who chastised the council on Monday night for continuing to spar with Fargo Public Schools about the operation of the south Moorhead arts facility.

The two bodies have been engaged in a spat over how to run the venue for weeks, since after the Bluestem nonprofit funding group dissolved, leaving sole operation of the site to the Fargo School District.

Both bodies have made public their ability to sue the other over operation of the venue. In late December, Fargo Public Schools requested all Moorhead council documents, emails and correspondence relating to the center.

On Jan. 14, the council fired back with its own records request of the school district. Voxland was not at that meeting, so on Monday he responded, calling the request on the council’s part “foolish” and “inflammatory.”

“It’s kind of an embarrassment,” Voxland said, after the majority of the council made no sign of wanting to withdraw the request. City Manager Michael Redlinger said it could be sent off today. This all followed another hourlong debate Monday night about leasing more Bluestem land to the school district, which again ended with the council failing to come to a consensus.

The City Council again voted 5-2 to table approval of a second lease to Fargo Public Schools for land abutting the Bluestem Center for the Arts here. Councilman Luther Stueland was absent.

The district already leases from the city the land that contains the amphitheater, which it uses to house its summertime arts program, Trollwood Performing Arts School. This new lease, which the council also tabled two weeks ago, would give Fargo Public Schools control over another 32.9 acres that abuts the venue to the south and west, land that is often used for overflow parking.

The lease would be set for an initial term of 18 months, followed by an option to continue for 13 years, followed by consecutive terms of 20-year periods. Councilman Mark Altenburg said he was uncomfortable signing their land over in a multi-decade agreement.

“We’re talking about a 35-year agreement,” Altenburg said. “None of us will be here. We’re talking about agreements that bind future councils.”

Some council members took issue with leasing the district the land for that long without any sort of oversight. After the initial 18 months, Fargo Public Schools could renew the lease for that 13-year period without any review by the council, Redlinger said.

Councilwoman Brenda Elmer suggested city staff redraft the lease so that it would have to be renewed and reviewed by the council on a yearly basis.

She echoed repeated concerns of her fellow council members that there were no contractual, long-term guarantees that the district would use the site for “regional arts” purposes.

Altenburg also said he was unsatisfied that the new lease only requires the school district pay $1 a year for rent. Two weeks ago, he suggested the district pay $17,000 annually into a scholarship fund for Moorhead school children to attend Trollwood. The lease before the council Monday did not reflect that suggestion.

Councilmen Mike Hulett and Steve Gehrtz voted in the minority against tabling the lease, both citing frustration with the council’s inability to move past the issue.

“I think it’s time to put it behind us and be good partners with the district in operating a regional arts facility,” Gehrtz said.

Before approving the lease, the majority of the council also wanted to receive more information about the joint Bluestem advisory board that was proposed by a school board member at their last meeting. That advisory committee would feature nine members, each representing the interests of Fargo schools, Moorhead, regional arts groups and Trollwood. The school board will take up that topic again on Feb. 12, and the council agreed to look at the lease again after that meeting.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518

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