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OUR OPINION: Next step: Get specific on downtown development

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What a great conversation has been started by the Grand Forks Downtown Development Association.

And what a great way the association chose to start it: Organizing “Downtown Day,” an event that brought Doug Burgum of Fargo, among others, to speak at the Empire Arts Center on downtown development.

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Now, the association and the city should start presenting specifics.

“Vibrant downtowns create smart, healthy cities,” as Burgum said. And he’s right. But how does Grand Forks pump vibrancy into its downtown? What ordinances should the city enact, what support can the association offer, and what should be the role of the state?

Those are the questions that the downtown’s boosters now should answer. For that’s the the way to turn the conversation into something even more useful: An action agenda, one that helps bring about an increasingly vibrant downtown.

As Grand Forks and the Downtown Development Association pursue that task, they have three great advantages.

The first is that downtown Grand Forks already is in pretty good shape. Visitors can see that every time they take a stroll: There is a fascinating and eclectic assortment of local — not chain — businesses downtown.

And just as important, there is very little blight. Together, those things mean Grand Forks already is well on its way toward creating a truly vibrant downtown.

The second advantage is that Fargo and Bismarck both have taken on and, in important ways, met or even surpassed the same downtown challenge. So, each city has a laundry list of policy specifics that they’ve already proven happy to share.

Third, the economy of Grand Forks and North Dakota mean this project is primed for success. Reinvigorating a downtown in a community whose young people are leaving and whose economy has been hammered by high unemployment is a daunting task.

Grand Forks, in contrast, enjoys problems of growth -- including a significant labor shortage -- rather than decline.

And in that kind of environment, further invigorating an already-healthy downtown is not an impossible dream.

Is UND still thinking about establishing a downtown presence? What was the role of the Renaissance Zone — which was established in 1999 and exempted various new businesses and tenants from property taxes for five years — in Fargo’s downtown success? What grants and other money sources are available for, say, streetscape and storefront improvements?

Grand Forks already is asking the right questions. Now, the city and association should commit to answering them, at which time the downtown’s actual revitalization will begin.

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