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OUR OPINION: Downtown development: More than meets the eye

Here’s a theme for organizers of the “Find the good life in North Dakota” campaign. It’s a powerful aspect of the good life in the rural upper Midwest, but one that very often gets overlooked:

In North Dakota, one person can make a difference. Join a committee, meet with like-minded residents, start a marketing campaign …

And before you know it, big things start getting done.

Here’s just one example: The success of the downtown development campaigns in North Dakota cities and towns.

In Grand Forks, the Downtown Development Association is barely a year old. True to form, it started as a committee, “a group of downtown stakeholders” who met, studied, brainstormed and planned, as Jonathan Holth, president of the DDA’s board of directors and owner of the Toasted Frog restaurant downtown, explained in a Herald column last fall.

Today, the association “has a projected income of about $234,500 for 2014,” Herald staff writer Charly Haley reported Sunday.

“The DDA is planning outdoor entertainment and community events starting this summer, and it’s a goal to continue offering more of that as the organization grows, Holth said. The DDA already hosted a Christmas tree-lighting this past winter, and this upcoming winter the tree-lighting will be a winter carnival.

“Other events in the works for 2014 are a river concert, a street fair and an Oktoberfest event.”

The group also is interviewing candidates for a paid position as executive director.

Sounds like the start of a whole new era for downtown Grand Forks.

But is this example exclusive to Grand Forks? Absolutely not, because in both Bismarck and Fargo, the exact same scenario has been playing out for years.

In 2011, Fargo’s downtown made Forbes magazine’s list of America’s “most transformed neighborhoods.” As for Bismarck, Kate Herzog, marketing and assistant director of The Downtowners in Bismarck, updated Herald readers in August on efforts there. “In less than a decade, downtown Bismarck has seen nearly $200 million in private investment, more than 400 full time jobs and dozens of new businesses,” she wrote.

And speaking of Bismarck’s Downtowners, that organization’s October newsletter highlighted the robust strength of this trend.

“North Dakota downtowns have made huge strides in the last year to cap off what has certainly been a decade of rediscovering central business district’s benefits in the state,” the newsletter noted.

“From what was once just two (Fargo and Bismarck) staffed downtown organizations in the state, downtown development organizations are now forming and growing. The Minot Downtown Business & Professional Association has hired staff members and is pursuing large development projects in their downtown.

“Dickinson is forming a Downtowners Association and doing a Downtown Vision Plan. Grand Forks has recently formed the Grand Forks Downtown Development Association and secured funding for the next three years of operation.

“Williston Downtowners are going through a Downtown Plan and holding public meetings on the process. The momentum is growing.”

All of these groups have one thing in common: They arose when like-minded individuals banded together and decided to get something done.

In North Dakota, one person can make a difference. And when you’re looking for the good life, that reality is a pretty good sign.