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North Branch Council discusses special election, and more news

The North Branch City Council tabled a vote to authorize a November special election regarding the Water & Light Commission during a meeting on Tuesday.

According to city administrator Renee Fry, the referendum would include two ballot questions. The first would be about the absorption of the electrical assets, and the second would be whether to abolish the city’s Water & Light Commission.

Commission chair Nathan Keech said the benefits outweigh the extra expenses of not waiting until the 2024 general election.

"You never hear someone say, 'hey, fire us,' right?" Keech said. "But that's essentially what we're doing. We've done our work, we've done our due diligence, we put in the time to get this ready to move over to the city."

The council expressed concerns about voter turnout in a non-election year. City Clerk Ragini Varma estimated the total cost associated with a 2023 special election at $35,500.

Mayor Kevin Schieber said the council will return to the topic at their July 11 meeting, when the full council is present, and a marketing plan for reaching voters is suggested.

Pine City Council continues Evergreen Square discussions

The Pine City Council met with Ben Copperhite, property manager for Evergreen Square, last week to continue discussions to bring a grocery store to town.

The city was approached by Copperhite in March. Part of his proposal included moving Voyageur Bottle Shop, Pine City’s municipal liquor store, to the strip mall for a one-stop shop experience for customers.

During the discussions on June 22, Copperhite presented a letter of intent (LOI) to the council that included a list of potential improvements the city would need to make as a tenant. Those projects included adding a loading dock, changes to electrical infrastructure, a new entrance, and flooring upgrades.

A potential lease for the 8,000-square-foot space was included in the LOI. It would charge about $8 a sq. ft. along with the landlord receiving a percentage of sales - 4% up to $2 million and then 2% after that.

Liquor Store Manager Lara Smetana said she was opposed to the idea because it took money away from the community.

“I don’t think as a municipal liquor store that we’re in the business to give any sort of sales to a business owner other than the community members,” Smetana said. “That’s one of the main things of a municipal liquor store is to put money back into the community.”

Smetana said because that dollar amount would vary, she would rather have a set figure.

“The State of Minnesota has a statute that if you lose money three years consecutively, it has to go to a community vote to even stay in business. We don’t want to put ourselves in that kind of situation at all knowing that if we got into a negotiation to give a portion of our sales away to a non-community thing,” said Smetana.

The city currently owns the building that the Voyageur Bottle Shop sits in, so the only expenses from the building are related to the utilities.

Moving the liquor store appears to be a key piece for bringing a potential grocery store to Pine City.

“It’s going to be tough for the landlord to make the numbers work (if the store isn’t moved) because of what the ask is of the entity,” Copperhite told the council.

When asked about the identity of the grocery store, Copperhite said that was not able to disclose that information, even to the city.

“It is a national (chain). The broker that I am working with has put together 125 different locations, and it is one that I frequent myself,” said Copperhite. “I believe the community would welcome them with both arms.”

Copperhite said that the company had been looking at Evergreen Square for some time, but they could not make the numbers work until now.

“The other elephant in the room is the parking lot over there,” Mayor Carl Pederson said during the June 22 meeting. “By our ordinance, it is, as a property owner, your responsibility to maintain; however, it is a fair amount of money, so we have to have some talks about how that is going to work out.”

Pederson said that he wants some sort of guarantee that any investment by the city, rent or otherwise, would be beneficial.

City Administrator Scott Hildebrand says the initial proposal was separate from negotiations the city is conducting.

However, Hildebrand says that he hopes to have a deal figured out by the fall for a potential move.

Man in custody after Rock Creek hit-and-run incident

A 40-year-old man is in custody following a hit-and-run incident near Rock Creek that left one with serious injuries Tuesday night.

According to law enforcement, Pine County Dispatch received a report of a pickup versus motorcycle accident at 560th Street and Forest Boulevard, south of Pine City.

The motorcycle driver was identified as James Sobczak of Pine City. He was transported by Lifelink Air Ambulance to Regions Hospital.

The Pine County Sheriff's Office says that a description of the driver led deputies to his address, where he turned himself in.

40-year-old Martin Johnson of Brook Park was arrested and booked into the Pine County Jail and is pending formal charges.

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