School district’s purchase of sports center nearly derailed

Council also tables drug paraphernalia ordinance for three months

Clint Riese
News Editor

The City Council on Monday kept on track the plan for the Forest Lake Area School District to purchase the Forest Lake Area Athletic Association Sports Center, but not before contentious debate and a razor-thin vote.

The school district’s pending purchase of the 5-year-old arena and fieldhouse, located on city land, was contingent upon the city waving approximately $117,000 in remaining development fees.

“Forwarding development fees to the school district is a deal-breaker,” School District 831 Business Services Manager Larry Martini told the council during the discussion Monday night.

The timing of that announcement rankled some on the council.

“I think there is a huge assumption that was made here by the school district and by FLAAA that these fees were going to be waived,” Councilman Mike Freer said. “If this is going to be a deal-breaker, like Mr. Martini said, I think they should’ve talked to us in advance before they decided to move forward.”

Council members were leery of setting a precedent that may lead every nonprofit to expect similar waiving of development fees for new projects.

However, Mayor Chris Johnson endorsed the request as a way to ensure the financially troubled center’s long-term future.

“We don’t have a parks and rec department, we have a parks department,” Johnson said. “Because of FLAAA, we get by without a rec department. So to stand in the way of this deal taking place and prolonging this community asset from being viable and active, I personally don’t think we should hold it up just to get an extra $117,000 out of FLAAA. They’ve done something for the community no one else can say they’ve done.”

Councilman Jeff Klein agreed.

“Doing what we can to make this deal happen is a major responsibility,” he said. “I keep hearing about a community center; I don’t even know what that means anymore. But I can tell you this is the closest thing this city has to a community center, and we don’t even have to pay for it.”

Klein also said it would be wise to waive the fee now rather than keep in play the possibility of financial risk to the city down the road.

“If this were not to take place and this is a deal-breaker and the school district does not do this, where does everyone up here see this going?” Klein asked. “I can foresee it being a foreclosed property, bank owned. A bank-owned building on city property. In which case, years from now, we’ll be trying to undo that damage for a lot more money than fees or a parking lot.”

For much of the discussion, it seemed unlikely that a third vote would swing in favor of the request.

Councilwoman Susan Young said early on she was not convinced, but when it came time to vote, she aligned with Johnson and Klein.

The next step in the school district’s $3.3 million purchase of the sports center is a school board public hearing on May 30.

Paraphernalia ordinance

While the council moved the sports center plan moves forward, it stalled another proposal that seemed on track for final approval.

The council tabled for three months an amended drug paraphernalia ordinance proposed by the Police Department.

The majority – Freer, Klein and Councilman Ben Winnick – voted for that time window as a way to see whether a certain Forest Lake business will close. Dazy Maze, 767 S. Lake St., is liquidating inventory in the wake of the ordinance’s proposal.

If the business shutters, the council may be inclined to enforce the ordinance, as police say Dazy Maze would be affected more than anyone by the stronger city code language regarding drug paraphernalia.

However, the voting majority did not want their names attached to a resolution that would essentially force a business to close.

“You don’t form a business and then expect somebody to say, ‘I’m going to outlaw your business in this city. Move,’” Freer said. “I don’t have a problem with the ordinance in and of itself. I have a problem with affecting a business and forcing it to leave.”

Winnick doubted the new ordinance’s effectiveness in curtailing drug use.

“You can go on the Internet and order any of those things from a thousand different places not in Forest Lake, and they’ll be delivered to your door the next day,” he said. “I don’t want to see kids doing drugs no more than anybody else does, but I don’t think an ordinance from the City Council of Forest Lake is going to affect that.”

Klein seemed more on the fence. He praised how the Police Department handled informing the businesses that would be affected, but found it ironic that the council would vote to approve such a regulation at the same meeting that it approved a gun range in a busy area.

“I don’t want to get into the habit up here of picking and choosing which businesses to support,” he said.

Young and Johnson strongly endorsed the ordinance.

“I don’t have a problem with saying there are things that you cannot sell in this town, just as we say there are things that we cannot sell to anyone under the age of 21 or anyone under the age of 18,” Young said.

“I don’t quite see saying that we’re putting a business out of business,” Johnson said. “We’re just saying if you know someone’s going to use this product illegally, you can’t sell it to them. You can’t sell something you know others are going to use illegally. That’s not asking that much, I don’t think.”

Other business

In other business, the council:

• Unanimously approved a conditional use permit clearing the way for Lakes Trading Company, 95 SW Eighth St., to build an 11-lane gun range.

• Unanimously approved a plan to hire an additional police officer in order to staff a liaison officer at Forest Lake’s junior high schools.

The City Council and Economic Development Authority meetings scheduled for May 20 have been canceled. The groups will next meet in regular session on Monday, June 10.