Great debates: Grand Forks history shows division over big projects
The crowd was starting to sound angry.
Mark Schill had experience as a consultant in front of big focus groups, probing people's thoughts with careful questions, but his early April appearance at Grand Forks' Hope Church wasn't turning out that way. What might have been a chance for the community to dream big and offer opinions about the public library was beginning to feel combative.
Guests pushed back, clutching an audience microphone and demanding more clarity on a project that had yet to be drafted. Though Schill's sessions sometimes can leave the room feeling engaged and thoughtful, anger was beginning to course through the crowd.
Months later, Schill recalls that evening as another set of citizens working through big emotions on a big community question. It's times like those, he said, when you just listen and ride it out.
"The folks who came to that, they needed to vent on that issue," he said. "You can't come with data to a group that wants to vent on an issue."
The public library wasn't the first issue to divide Grand Forks, and in the months since, it hasn't been the last. Grand Forks has had a rich history of heated debates over big projects — from the Columbia Road overpass in the 1970s and 1980s to what's now the Alerus Center to recovery after the Flood of 1997. Today, a failed sales tax increase that won 44 percent of the vote has left the city grappling with how to pay for its future—casting doubt on the public library's next steps—and just a few blocks from City Hall, debate rages over a construction project slated for Arbor Park.
"Sometimes it feels like we're so conservative here that it's much harder to do these projects," said City Council member Ken Vein. "It seems—it's just this perception—when you go to other communities, they seem to do much better."
Vein makes that statement with an important caveat: Not all debates are created equal.
"Every issue, every topic does have its own people that it impacts, and so you do have a different audience with one versus the other. It isn't one size fits all," Vein said. "If you're moving ahead and doing things, and not just sitting back and letting things be, that probably will impact some more than others. And some will endorse it, and others will not."
But the fact still stands: Grand Forks makes big arguments about the future a regular part of its history.
The answer depends both on who you ask and which project you're talking about. Brian Schill, Mark's cousin and chairman of the Library Board, offers a study that frames North Dakotans as some of the most agreeable—but the least open—people in the country.
"That kind of stuff plays out directly in our opposition to a sales tax, or new people coming to the area," Brian Schill said. "All of that stuff can be discussed in an anthropological, geographical way."
Schill said that's certainly not meant to be disparaging. He argues, though, that whatever criticisms there are of the library planning process, he always assumed there would be debate.
"I think a lot of right decisions in the long run can emerge from this stuff," he said. "It might take longer, but you don't want these to be knee-jerk reactions, either."
City Council member Dana Sande has his own theory: People like Grand Forks, he said.
"My opinion is that people are generally happy. And when you're generally happy, your tendency is to vote no for change."
Mark Schill's consultant work is at Praxis Strategy Group, where he works as vice president for research, and he lives in Grand Forks. Much like Sande, he points out debate is many times driven not by what people stand to gain, but what they stand to lose. It's called "risk aversion," and everybody does it—not just Scandinavians.
It doesn't take much looking to find that phenomenon in play in debates of the past. Construction of the Columbia Road overpass, which first opened in 1984 and was widened in 1989, was met with controversy. On one side were people who wanted to ease traffic congestion and address emergency response concerns, and on the other were those concerned about the inevitable higher traffic and its impact on UND's campus.
At Arbor Park, there's profound anxiety about the loss of a beloved downtown space. Petitioners hoping to preserve the park are pushing back against a development deal to place a $7 million-plus building on site that proponents say could be a shot in the arm for the downtown area.
All those dynamics—from heritage to happiness—may have crashed up against the city's expansion at different points in the city's history. City Council President Hal Gershman, who served in city government from 2000 to 2014, says the plan for the Columbia Road overpass was driven by growth.
Likewise, he said the push to build what's now the Alerus Center was linked to leaders' vision for a bigger, more vibrant city. Herald archives show the city grappled with decisions on cost and location, which played out in a series of public votes in the 1990s before the center eventually opened in 2001.
Documents from city planners help illustrate his point. It's not your grandfather's Grand Forks: In 1960, the population was about 34,500; in 2000, about 49,000; by the early 2010s, it had surpassed 56,000.
"The pressures we have in Grand Forks are pressures because of the growth of our community," Gershman said. "That's a good problem to have. We need to manage it, so hopefully we have less controversy and more agreement."
Terry Bjerke is no stranger to debate. A Grand Forks City Council member from 2000 to 2002 and from 2008 until June of this year—when he lost a bid for the mayor's seat—Bjerke was a budget hawk unafraid to voice opposition, often the only dissenting vote on a range of city items.
"I would say there's probably two camps in the city," Bjerke said. "I would say what I would call the 'elites' are in one camp, and the people who work and take their lunch to work are in the other camp. And I don't think the elites get the people who take their sandwiches to work."
And most important, he said, he sees the "elites" as a group that pushes an agenda and won't be deterred from achieving it.
"When the elites say yes, that means yes," he said. "When the average joes say no, that means 'next time.'"
Bjerke points specifically to the city sales tax increase that failed at the polls in November. The money would have been used on a slew of infrastructure projects, from a new water treatment plant to a new Interstate 29 interchange, a boon some city leaders said would help underwrite city growth in coming years. But despite its failure, Mayor Mike Brown said he wants it back before voters in an amended form in a matter of months.
Bjerke, like many others, was quick to say he doesn't see all of the city's big debates as a conflict between "elites" and everyday people—nor does he see that conflict affects each issue in the same way. He said the flood recovery stands on its own, a unique event that forced difficult community decisions.
City Administrator Todd Feland disagreed with Bjerke. He said "no" doesn't always mean the public doesn't want a project.
"I think when people said no to certain things, I think it would be too simple to say they said no to say no," he said, arguing that voters might reject a city ballot proposal for any number of reasons. He said a new push for a sales tax increase would include—by the mayor's request—both a shorter duration and a more specific list of projects. "As city government, our job is to reach out and see why they said no."
City leaders have pressed forward despite setbacks. The path to building the Alerus Center—eventually an $81 million project—took multiple public votes, one of which failed by a 2-1 margin in the early 1990s. A sales tax increase to fund the Grand Forks Public Library failed in 2011, but city leaders were discussing the possibility of a similar measure as recently as this past summer.
Bjerke offered another critique: that Mayor Brown sometimes isn't as decisive as he should be. He cited the library discussion as an example of how debates can get bogged down in a seemingly interminable search for consensus.
"He's repeatedly said that he's all for a new library, but it's been five and a half years," Bjerke said, referring to 2011's failed sales tax vote. "Have we even picked a location yet?"
Brown, who has been elected a record five consecutive terms, said his leadership style is to "achieve together."
And Brown offered this suggestion: Keep going. To Bjerke's accusation that the "elites" don't take no for an answer, he said he agrees.
"You need to move forward, you need to have change," he said. "If you accepted every no as a no, you'd still have dirt roads."
And the city has had its share of those disagreements this year, all of which are entangled and related. At Arbor Park, petitioners have gathered signatures in the hopes of forcing the sale of the land to the Grand Forks Park District, thus preserving it. Brown has called for another look at a city sales tax increase, which could head to voters at the same special election. The Grand Forks Public Library, though likely not a direct beneficiary of the sales tax increase, could become a higher city priority with more revenue running into local coffers and could see revenue from sales taxes diverted to it at a future date.
How do we move forward?
Mark Schill's answer was simple: Debate is part of the life of a community.
The passion at his library session was emotion-driven, to be sure, but he is quick to note that 75 people decided to show up because they care about their community.
"I think that's a good thing in the long run," he said. "After everything we've been through ... there's still that voice. People want to feel heard on whatever the issue was. You can't get to the technical work until people feel heard."