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OUR OPINION: Bike trail could put valley on recreational map

If the North Valley/New Vision 360 organizers still are open to “Grand Ideas” for Grand Forks, here’s one:

Partner with Fargo and other valley communities on making the most of the Red River’s recreational potential.

And consider using that partnership to plan, build and promote a national-class asset for the region: a bike trail between Grand Forks and Fargo.

Minnesota already enjoys America’s best network of paved bike trails, as Wednesday’s editorial noted. But North Dakota has had neither the desire, the money nor (many used to say) the scenery to build similar trails here.

That’s changing, though, and in very important ways. North Dakota now can afford some recreational amenities, especially those that would require one-time construction money but much less in the way of maintenance spending after that.

Plus, in Grand Forks, Fargo and elsewhere along the Red River, people have begun to enjoy the river as never before. One stroll along any section of the Grand Forks Greenway shows why: It’s pretty. The river views are scenic in a way few North Dakotans seem to have expected — especially residents of eastern North Dakota, accustomed as they’ve been to driving to Minnesota’s lake country and seeing “North Dakota: Mountain removal project complete” billboards in their rear-view mirrors as they go.

Now, here are even-more-recent developments:

  •  Williston’s new $76 million recreation center — the biggest parks-district owned recreation center in America — could have been a bust. Critics could have derided it as a boondoggle and a waste of good taxpayer money, money that could otherwise have gone to infrastructure such as highways and schools.

But a funny thing happened on the way to white-elephant status: The project triumphed, becoming within weeks of its opening one of Williston’s biggest sources of pride.

Townspeople love it; 3,000 memberships already have been sold. Job Service North Dakota points to the center’s usefulness as a labor-force recruiting tool.

The Wall Street Journal used the center’s opening as the hook for an upbeat story, “Oil boomtown Williston, N.D., looks for a stable future.”

And the North Dakota Petroleum Council agrees, headlining a recent newsletter feature, “Quality of life and new opportunities on the rise in western North Dakota.”

Clearly, North Dakotans are moving up on the classic “hierarchy of needs” and are ready to invest some of the state’s newfound wealth in recreational amenities. The residents have earned it.

  • Just as clearly, Grand Forks and Fargo are more willing to partner than they’ve been before, too.

UND and North Dakota State University are running joint projects and have others in the works. One of the first projects to take advantage of Grand Forks’ new status as a test site for unmanned aircraft is being run through NDSU.

The Valley Prosperity Partnership, launched with a $100,000 gift from Forum Communications Co. Chairman Bill Marcil Sr., expressly is looking for “common strategic economic development opportunities” that can link the two cities.

Taken together, the above factors mean suggest a new physical link — a paved bike trail along the Red River, with spokes to Hillsboro, N.D., and other communities along the way  — can be a reality, not just a pipe dream.

Let’s start the conversation, study the possibilities and look forward to a really great ride.