Fufeng's name, origin were known to Grand Forks leaders earlier than previously disclosed
"It appears I would have had an opportunity to administratively know the Fufeng Group name in March 2021," Administrator Todd Feland said. The broader city administrative team likely knew by July.
City Administrator Todd Feland
GRAND FORKS — A Grand Forks official said city leaders learned as early as March or July 2021 that Fufeng USA was the company that sought to build a corn mill along Grand Forks’ northern border.
Mayor Brandon Bochenski said it may have been as early as October 2020 when he found out about the company name and possibly about its ties to China.
That time frame differs from one published by the Grand Forks Herald on Jan. 27 . In that report, City Administrator Todd Feland said the city learned of the company’s Chinese ties only “weeks before the (Nov. 8, 2021, public) announcement” that Fufeng planned to come to Grand Forks.
Following the article’s publication, Grand Forks resident Alison Spicer — during the public-input portion of the Feb. 6 City Council meeting — accused city officials of being dishonest about when they learned of the project’s ownership and country of origin.
“Another thing I have heard this week is backpedaling — lots and lots of backpedaling from the council,” she said. “The thing I keep hearing though is ‘we didn’t know this was a Chinese company.’”
The Herald called Feland to respond. He said he then looked back at previous emails and agendas to get a timeline on information related to the project. Based on that search, he said that on Oct. 14-15, 2020, a site selection visit was held at the Alerus Center. The meeting included a host of city and state leaders, including Bochenski, Feland and James Leiman, who at that time was head of the state Department of Commerce. In attendance were Fufeng USA executives Eric Chutorash, the company’s chief operating officer, and Mary Armstrong, a Fufeng human resources director. A number of Grand Forks business leaders attended as well.
Additionally, Feland said there were site visits held on March 2-3, 2021, and July 6-9, 2021. It was at the March site selection visit that Feland said he learned of the company’s name.
“Based on this looking back and the noted agendas, it appears I would have had an opportunity to administratively know the Fufeng Group name in March 2021 as part of the March 2 and 3, 2021, site visit,” Feland told the Herald after the newspaper asked for a response and clarification. “The broader city of Grand Forks administrative team would have been introduced to the Fufeng Group and name at the July 6-9, 2021, site visit related to various infrastructure meetings. The first time the city of Grand Forks administrative team engaged with the Fufeng Group attorney regarding development agreement activities was on July 27, 2021.”
Feland said his role throughout the initial site selection process was to focus on the infrastructure side of the project.
Project Peony Site Selection Information by inforumdocs on Scribd
For the Herald’s Jan. 27 report on the timeline, Feland said “instead of ‘weeks, I should have said ‘months.’”
Wednesday, he told a Herald reporter he previously "answered off the top of mind and in the moment with you regarding when I and the city administration team would have known of the Fufeng Group name and answered weeks in advance of the public announcement. The (answer) herein is a more researched and accounting versus what I responded in the moment with you previously. As you can understand, when you are working on a challenging project you are in action and moving forward and only when a project is stopped do you generally look back to recollect the history in detail."
Bochenski last week told the Herald he recalls the first site selection meeting in October 2020 as when he would have learned of the company’s name as well as its Chinese ties. “At that point, we would have known the company’s name,” he said.
He also said he doesn’t necessarily recall specifics; he does remember it as a state-driven project at that point. While reporting for its Jan. 27 story, the Herald did not ask Bochenski to comment on when the city learned about the company's Chinese ties, but instead asked him about when Grand Forks Air Force Base officials were notified about the corn mill.
This week, the Herald did ask him about his recollection of events — specifically when he learned of the company name and its origins.
“As I look at the dates on that first meeting in October of 2020, I would have learned the company’s name and that the parent company was Chinese based,” Bochenski said in a follow-up email. “It didn’t raise concerns for me at the time as it was a state of North Dakota and (Economic Development Corp.) project at that point and Cirrus Aircraft had operated in the community prior to that without raising concerns. It appears the state and Department of Commerce would have known the country of origin in April of 2020 or earlier. The city-led vetting began through the development agreement process, ultimately ending the project.”
The timeline of the city’s knowledge has become the latest question in the controversy surrounding the corn mill that was proposed for Grand Forks. After its public announcement on Nov. 8, 2021, the project generated intense scrutiny and controversy over the next 14 months. Late last month, the Air Force declared the mill a national security threat , prompting the City Council to vote earlier this week to abandon the project.
As reported on Jan. 27 by the Herald , the project was known by a code name — Project Peony — throughout much of the early development, which was happening behind the scenes as far back as April 2020. Economic Development Corp. CEO Keith Lund said the code name was used to protect the name of the company, which is allowable by a state law that “prohibits the announcement of projects before they’re publicly announced.”
For months during negotiations, Lund and executives at the Economic Development Corp. worked with Fufeng’s ownership during various stages of the recruiting phase before it was publicly announced. Exactly when city leaders learned the background of Project Peony has sparked questions. Worth noting is that the EDC and the city are separate entities.
Feland, in the Jan. 27 Herald report, said the city learned of Fufeng’s identity closer to when the project was publicly announced.
“We found out very late in the process that it was Fufeng,” Feland said at the time. “It was shortly before it was publicly announced that we found out it was a Chinese investment.”
But at the Feb. 6 City Council meeting, Spicer referenced a 2020 email from the state Department of Commerce, which included an attachment that referenced “a privately-owned, Chinese corn-based manufacturer of food additives, animal feed and other products.”
When asked if the city received an email from the state Department of Commerce, which included a request for proposals for the project, Feland this week said the city did not receive that email. Instead, he said, it was sent to the Economic Development Corp., which handled early negotiations. Bochenski was not elected mayor until June of 2020.
Spicer also referenced the Oct. 14-15, 2020, meeting at the Alerus Center.
“The Alerus Center held a Project Peony site visit. The guests included Eric Chutorash, vice president of Fufeng (and) Mary Armstrong, Fufeng’s human resources director. …” she said during Monday’s council meeting.
Feland said this week that, at the time, he wasn’t aware that Chutorash was part of Fufeng. Feland also said the visit was related to infrastructure and how the city would be able to serve the project.
“Are you going to try to tell me that, at this point, you were still unaware that this was a Chinese-owned company?” Spicer said at the council meeting. “Highly doubtful.”
Feland’s response this week to the Herald: “My recollection at that time was I thought there was like four or five people there that were representing Project Peony. I just assumed they were all part of the site selection company and obviously Eric Chutorash later turned out to be part of Fufeng. So I'm not sure if he was, you know, part of Fufeng at that meeting or if he was part of the site selection team. I don't remember the difference. I just remember there were four or five people from the company that we were briefing and I think when the city was there, we were mainly briefing on the infrastructure side.”