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KORRIE WENZEL: Bask in sun, but mind the clouds on Grand Forks' horizon, too

Korrie Wenzel

There’s no shortage of optimism around Grand Forks and North Dakota in general. Seems that around every corner, someone is excited about the future, and for good reason.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, during the annual Governor’s Business Forum Tuesday at the Alerus Center, told a lunchtime crowd that North Dakota is on the national radar. He’s been having a good time telling people about the state’s meteoric economic rise.

“It’s a fun time to be governor,” he said. “Most of you remember a time when it wasn’t quite like this.”

Like what?

Like being a part of the nation’s fastest-growing economy, for instance. The governor said people are used to seeing states jump to the top of one economic growth category or another, but then they usually slip back soon after. Here in North Dakota, that isn’t happening, and Dalrymple seems to enjoy leading a state with that distinction.

He remembers back in 2000 when he was lieutenant governor, discussing economic growth with then-Gov., now U.S. Sen. John Hoeven. Their common goal was to create more good jobs in North Dakota, and look what’s happened: 160,000 new jobs in the state in the years since.

Of course, Dalrymple acknowledges that luck — the oil boom — has played a very large part in that growth, but he also said other, unrelated, growth has happened, too. Grand Forks, he noted, has seen economic growth and especially a surge in per-capita personal income in recent years.

He said the reason for this business climate “is not rocket science.”

Then what is it?

According to Dalrymple, North Dakota supports business. North Dakota considers companies “good people.” North Dakota has reasonable taxes that are getting lower. North Dakota has a good regulatory climate. And North Dakota has a responsive government.

Meanwhile, Grand Forks residents are equally positive. At the recent Downtown Day at the Empire Theatre — a great idea, by the way — city leaders waxed optimistic about Grand Forks’ downtown potential.

Community boosters urged attendees to push for an even better downtown. Begin a community conversation now, pleaded Toasted Frog co-owner Jonathan Holth, and make downtown the city’s “living room.”

City Council President Hal Gershman compared Grand Forks to the opening line of Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” — you know, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” The worst of times, of course, was the ‘97 flood.

“There is a renewed excitement about downtown,” he said. “Just when you think the best of times are here, they’re about to get better.”

And Thursday at the Alerus Center, a lunch crowd applauded the United Way as it once again raised more than $1 million, to be distributed to worthwhile causes throughout town. More good news.

This is fun. North Dakota and Grand Forks exude such an aura of enthusiasm that it’s hard to not get caught up in it.

Unfortunately, it’s also a classic example of good news-bad news.

The good news is shouted from the rooftops, and rightly so. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems projects slated for Grand Forks will bring in a bunch of high-tech, futuristic jobs. The $1.7 billion Northern Plains Nitrogen plant will, too; and remember, many of those jobs will pay high salaries.

Downtown is hopping, and folks are working to make it hop even more. Lots of people are talking. Unemployment barely exists here.

The bad news is that the region’s farmers often can’t get their crops to market in a timely fashion, and getting fertilizer delivered in time for this planting season appears iffy. As for the latter, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Agriculture is the engine that drives this economy, and the shortage of trains — commandeered for transporting oil — could be a drastic setback to this region. Farmers deserve better, and people of the valley need to realize how colossal this problem really is. Or at least how big it could be.

Further, we have a glaring shortage of labor and a notable and well-publicized housing crunch. It doesn’t take a titan of business to realize that luring the next great employer to this region will be impossible until these issues are solved.

A large software developer or a tractor factory or some other widget-maker most decidedly will not relocate to Grand Forks if there aren’t workers to fill the jobs or cozy homes to house them. So, in the end, the seemingly great news (low unemployment, etc.) someday could very well cost Grand Forks its next great economic development opportunity. That’s bad news, too.

And, at the United Way luncheon, we learned that despite the agency’s great efforts, many people in Grand Forks County are still in poverty, many kids still go hungry, and use of the local food pantry is rising. Bad news.

Gershman is right: It could be the best of times, and it’s enjoyable to watch efforts to try to make these times even better.

A newspaper’s role in this is twofold: Continue to shout the good news from the rooftops — but also to be certain that the bad news, however painful, is presented as well.