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Editorial: Seek federal contracting dollars as new source of growth

The North Dakota prairie is the last place you'd expect to find an iceberg. But drive on out to the Grand Sky project, take a look at the construction there, and you'll see it—the tip of one, at least.

It's the buildings themselves.

They're the tip of a truly massive "iceberg"—a huge and, until now, hidden source of growth and economic development.

The iceberg is the multi-billion-dollar world of Defense Department contracting. And with Grand Forks and Fargo's new focus on not only unmanned aviation systems but also cybersecurity, the valley is better positioned than ever to take advantage of it.

This insight comes from a comment made at a recent business/Chamber meeting in Grand Forks. So far, the region's UAS expertise has drawn mostly commercial and Air Force interest, the speaker noted.

And that's terrific. But why not expand that horizon to include the entire Defense Department, or maybe even the rest of the federal government?

While we're at it, why not capitalize on the staggering growth of Washington's interest in cybersecurity, too?

Those are great ideas, as one look at the places where the U.S. government already does its contracting will show.

"The U.S. federal government is the world's largest buyer of goods and services," notes the website of the Fairfax County (Va.) Economic Development Authority.

"And more federal procurement awards go to companies located in Fairfax County than any other county or city in the United States.

"More than 4,600 vendors in Fairfax County do business with the federal government. In 2015, they accounted for 5 percent of all federal procurement contracts, totaling $22.8 billion—more procurement award dollars than 46 states and the District of Columbia."

Well, sure, but that's Fairfax County, just outside of D.C..

But this isn't:

"Defense is Kitsap's economic foundation, fueling more than 50 percent of our economy," notes the Kitsap Economic Development Alliance in Silverdale, Wash.

"Nearly $22.2 billion was awarded to Kitsap sub-contractors in FY 2012, 2103 and YTD 2014, for work done by prime contractors under DoD contracts."

No wonder the Kitsap alliance helps sponsor an annual Defense Symposium, at which businesses gain "the resources and experience to enter these lucrative partnerships" with government agencies.

True, there's no Boeing factory or U.S. Army and Navy infrastructure to drive the Grand Forks economy to those heights. But there are, now, the unmanned-systems businesses and cybersecurity expertise that federal agencies so strongly demand.

The seeds are present, in other words. From them, mighty Defense Department contracting as well as commercial oaks can grow.

Valley officials and executives should spot the opportunity, commit to becoming "experts" and resolve to secure for the region a bigger share of this tremendous area of growth.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald