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Erik Burgess, Published March 10 2014

City council votes down plans for Moorhead to acquire cultural center

MOORHEAD – A plan for the city to acquire and fix up the former home of a struggling Latino nonprofit here was derailed by two votes on Monday night.

The state’s Attorney General’s Office is working on dissolving the nonprofit Centro Cultural de Fargo-Moorhead. It asked the city to consider acquiring the Centro building at 1014 19th St. S., which the assistant attorney general said has been abandoned and is a public safety risk.

City staff strongly urged council members to spend an estimated $3,600 to study the condition of the building, but some council members urged caution, saying they were concerned about the city even considering acquiring more property and getting tied into an expensive rehabilitation project.

“I just see this as having caution written all over it,” said City Councilman Mike Hulett. “We own a lot of property, and we have a lot of property we’re trying to sell. The last thing we need is another piece of property we don’t need.”

While a majority of council members and Mayor Del Rae Williams said they were OK further studying the building, the motion failed on a 5-2 vote. Funding needed six votes for approval. Councilmen Steve Gehrtz and Jim Haney voted “no” and Councilwoman Heidi Durand was absent.

The city would have been given the building, which is assessed at $210,700, for free, although it would have been on the hook for any repairs if it chose to keep the building and not resell it.

City Manager Michael Redlinger said the attorney general will now seek out another party, such as a Realtor or developer, to take the building when the nonprofit is dissolved later this year.

Public safety risk?

Centro Cultural’s leadership abandoned the organization and all of its charitable assets, including its building in Romkey Park, last summer after years of mismanagement and disorganization, according to a letter from Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Kremenak to the city.

The attorney general’s office asked Moorhead to take over control of the building. In her letter, dated Feb. 19, Kremenak said the abandoned building is a public safety risk and about 2 feet of water has pooled in the basement.

“Children’s games, toys, and entertainment suffer from decay in the building,” she wrote. “There are large holes in the walls … A child’s handprints can be seen above one of these holes, evidencing that children are endangering their welfare by playing in the facility.”

The roughly 4,000-square-foot building is next to Romkey Park, which is one of the reasons the attorney general asked the city to consider acquiring the property, said Lisa Vatnsdal, the city’s community development manager.

A recent on-site inspection by city staff showed that the building is secure and structurally sound, according to council documents.

Some council members were concerned about the rehab cost.

Councilman Steve Gehrtz said he wouldn’t be surprised if the city ended up spending $20 per square foot to fix the building. With a 4,000-square-foot building, “You could bump up against 80 to 100 grand pretty easy,” he said.

Deputy City Manager Scott Hutchins said he was somewhat puzzled by the attorney general’s assessment of the building.

“It leaves you the impression that this place is just in shambles, and it really does not appear that way,” he said.

Still, Hutchins said he agreed that rehabilitating the building could be expensive. City staff would have studied what a rehab would cost if the council had signed off on further study.

Holly Heitkamp, parks and recreation director, said the building would be a much-needed asset in the Romkey area, which has a high number of low-income and racially diverse households.

The city’s current recreation facilities at Romkey and nearby Bennett Park are too small, Heitkamp said. The Romkey neighborhood, which is comprised of 100 percent apartments and townhomes, needs an area for kids to recreate, she said.

“It certainly helps these parents out to have a place for their kids to go,” Heitkamp said.

She said 78 percent of Romkey households have annual incomes of less than $20,000, while the average Moorhead household income is $44,598.

Hutchins told council members that in that area “our facilities are stressed, if not bursting at the seams, to do a good job.”

He said the city would have sought out grants and other partnerships to help fund rehabilitation of the building and to provide youth programming.

Gehrtz said he was concerned the funding would be taken from something else.

Centro’s ‘death spiral’

Centro Cultural has not filed its forms with the federal government for tax-exempt status since 2010, or its charitable organization paperwork with the state since 2011.

In an email to The Forum, Christine LaCoursiere, the most recent chairwoman of Centro’s board of directors, said several board members left around fall 2011 when then-executive director Raul “Papo” Fernandez left.

“You had no staff, and you had no money to pay a staff,” said former 2nd Ward Councilman Mark Altenburg. “So it’s just basically a death spiral.”

Last summer, there were community protests and an attempt by some to reboot the nonprofit, but with no staff or funding and “a lack of constructive community involvement,” nothing came to fruition, LaCoursiere said.

“Given the past difficulties the organization had, Centro Cultural’s days were simply numbered in the eyes of the AG’s office,” she wrote.

Centro Cultural began in 1993 as the “Hispanic Community Center Project,” the brainchild of a group of Mexicans – primarily area beet farm workers – who wanted a resource to help fellow Latinos in the region. The group opened a community center near Romkey Park in 1998.

A court hearing is set for March 19 to dissolve the nonprofit. LaCoursiere said it’s not yet decided whether anyone from the board will be present for that court hearing.

She said she hopes the building can still be used for a community purpose.

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